As children, days are spent lost in worlds created by our imaginations. We can be anything, have every superpower, create new abilities. In some ways, virtual reality can transform our greatest make believes from black and white into technicolor. For one little girl, her dreams of becoming a mermaid came true in the underwater world of VR.
Zainab the Mermaid recently spent a birthday party at VR Therapies, aka Virtual Reality Therapies. The organization is a nonprofit social enterprise based in the UK that is dedicated to supporting the well-being of children with special needs and adults with disabilities through the use of multi-sensory and immersive technology. Rebecca Gill, nurse and founder of VR Therapies, told UploadVR over email that one major aspect of their organization is their "magical community centre" that sets their organization apart and "allows people to break boundaries and experience things beyond their physical limitations. They believe in harnessing the power of technology to create a positive impact on people's lives."
Zainab turned 4 years old the day she grew her fins. She has been diagnosed with terminal cancer for about a year. Making her birthday something extra special started as the wish of her family, according to Gill, but it became the goal of a giant community of supporters and VR enthusiasts who were touched by Zainab’s story.
VR Therapies & Zainab
Gill had been contacted by a teacher in the community who explained the little sister of one of her students was terminally ill. Gill put out a call for help, and within hours an assortment of assistance rolled in. Gill used social media and a global network of connections in the VR community to help make her dream come true. The response was huge.
After 48 hours of non-stop work, they were ready to show Zainab a day as a mermaid.
“I spoke to mermaids and developers all over the world. I organised donations for presents, decorations, mermaid outfits, even a handmade seashell crown,” Gill wrote. “I spent Monday morning getting the centre ready with the help of the volunteers. Two students traveled from London to assist. My friend Katie dressed up as a mermaid and brought instruments and presents.”
Gill spent the weekend talking to developers and supporters from around the globe. While mermaid tails and crowns were being carefully crafted, VR programs were created and tested.
“‘Mermaid VR’ projects would not have come together without the @onboardxr community that @brendanAbradley has tirelessly cultivated along w. key contributors @clemencedebaig @MorranMichael; more help behind the scenes from @braden_roy @DavidGochfeld & fish avatars @MattBCool” — @rebecca_evans, Virtual Reality Theater Producer and Director said via Twitter.
The day of the party, Zainab and her family entered the facility to the sound of a mermaid’s song, Gill explained. The space was transformed with murals of the sea, jellyfish and dolphins. After donning her very own mermaid gown and tiara, Zainab and her big brother ventured under the sea.
“Zainab had a full multi-sensory experience where her sense of sight, sound and touch was stimulated as the real and virtual worlds merged together with beautiful colours, textures, music and magic. The walls changed colour in response to sound as we learnt what colour a mermaid sings in. The sequins and the sparkles mesmerised her as she further explored the room. We then showed Zainab our magical goggles. Soon Zainab and her 6-year-old brother were playing with dolphins and other sea creatures in the ocean. Her brother threw hoops in the water and enticed the dolphins over [to] play with Zainab, letting him take charge and be the one to bring the dolphins to Zainab, to be the one who made her smile,” according to a post on VR Therapies' website.
As the newest little mermaid looked down while wearing her magic goggles, she saw her own floating, pink mermaid fin. As she held up a mirror she saw an avatar, designed to look just like her, smiling back.
Zainab’s community of supporters, and fans online, continue to be touched by her story.
“VR has such a power to help people through difficult times, allowing us to deeply connect with experiences, other people, and ourselves. It was an honor to be able to build the mermaid mirror experience for Zainab," wrote @lucas_martinic on Twitter.
Zainab visited the center again a few days later. Her pain was greater that day, but the little mermaid and her family experienced various VR programs and explored the worlds together. That Friday Gill brought a VR headset, preloaded with the mermaid adventure, to the family’s home.
“Now she can be a mermaid whenever she wants to. She can swim with dolphins day or night. If the world gets too much or the pain is bad, the dolphins will always be there,” Gill told us. “Her brother will also be able to visit his mermaid sister whenever he needs to.”
Gill is dedicated to bringing immersive technology to people she sees as benefiting from it the most.
“We take children undergoing chemotherapy flying through space, people who can’t walk swimming with dolphins, the elderly with dementia on trips down memory lane,” she told UploadVR.
In 2018, after seeing so many people unable to access traditional therapy methods, Gill began looking for new ways to connect and reach people through therapy. She was fascinated with VR and sees in it the ability to provide “life-changing” therapies. She founded VR Therapies with the goal of improving mental health, wellbeing and rehabilitation through immersive sensory experiences.
“VR can really change lives. For those whose time is running out, it allows us to tick off bucket lists," Gil told us. " To do the things we’ve always dreamed of and to break down the barriers of the physical world. It doesn’t matter what else is going on in the world, for a short while it is just you and the dolphins."
Gill says she is currently working to set up a fund for families, and children like Zainab, so preloaded headsets can be supplied when they can’t manage to visit the center themselves.
“It will support families of sick children or those with life limiting conditions, those recovering from ill health and hospitalisation or those on palliative end of life care,” she said.
In her funding application she wrote:
“This week we did a session with a 4 year old girl dying from cancer …Through the power of VR we were able to make her dying wish come true – to become a mermaid. We helped her brother join her so they could swim and play with dolphins together … We would now like to loan them a headset so after his sister passes, this 6 year old boy will be able to return to the ocean and visit his mermaid sister. VR is helping this family through the most traumatic period of their lives. I want the little girl to be able to swim with dolphins day or night, when the pain gets bad she can escape this world. I want her brother to be able to visit his mermaid sister when he is struggling with his grief. I want the parents to know support is out there and can join peer support groups virtually.”
Gill passed along the following message she attributed to Zainab's father:
"Rebecca we are indebted for the kindness and compassion you and your team showed us We have no words to repay this. Zainab had a great time and we will cherish these memories and pictures for the rest of our life."