An interactive app that monitors children’s heart rates is helping take the fear out of hospital visits.

BrightHearts, a relaxation app developed by COFA digital artist Dr George Khut, displays a child’s pulse as a colourful image on an ipad screen.

The app has been designed to help children develop relaxation and anxiety management skills before and during medical procedures by rewarding decreases in heart rate with soothing animations and sounds.

The app is currently being trialled at Westmead Children’s Hospital by patients undergoing recurrent, painful procedures like injections, central line changes, and lumbar punctures.

Dr Khut says the app combines distraction methods with the principals of “biofeedback relaxation training.”

“The children learn to control the artwork on the iPad with their breathing and by imagining calming experiences. By learning to voluntarily regulate their heart rate through attention and imagination they learn ongoing skills to better regulate their experience of pain and anxiety,” Dr Khut says.

The app artworks, which Dr Khut originally developed as large video installations, are similar to mandalas – geometric visualisations used to focus attention during meditation – found in many cultures.

Dr Angie Morrow, staff specialist in brain injury at Westmead Children’s Hospital, is currently testing the efficacy of the BrightHearts app as a pain management tool.

“The main aim of the project is to test whether the app is more effective at reducing pain and anxiety than the games and videos already commonly used in hospitals. The difference with biofeedback is children feel like they have some control over what’s happening in their bodies,” she says.

Dr Khut has been developing interactive and participatory art for use in hospitals for a number of years. In 2009 he led the The Heart Library Project at St. Vincent’s Public Hospital followed by his position as artist-in-residence at Westmead Children’s Hospital in 2011. In 2012 he won the National New Media Art Award at the Queensland Gallery of Modern Art for his heart rate controlled artwork, Distiller: Waveforming.

BrightHearts will be part of the national touring exhibition People Like Us which opens at Galleries UNSW next year. The exhibition aims to humanise new media technologies through an intimate look at the lives of others and is the result of a successful proposal by Galleries UNSW and COFA to Museums & Galleries NSW and the National Exhibition Touring Support Australia.

The BrightHearts project is supported by the James N. Kirby Foundation, Sensorium Health and the Australian Network for Art and Technology.

The BrightHearts app can be purchased from the Apple iTunes App store, with wrist-worn heart rate sensors available from the Sensorium Health store.  

Watch the ABC news story here 

Media contact: Fran Strachan, UNSW Media, 9385 8732, 0429 416 070