In cyberspace, Steven Spielberg looks like E.T.
At least that was the director's avatar of choice Monday as he demonstrated an experimental computer network that allows seriously ill children to escape their hospital beds to a "virtual playspace" where they can explore and communicate with each other.
The ambitious merger of entertainment, technology and medicine is being organized by the nonprofit Starbright Foundation, started by British film producer Peter Samuelson in 1989 with the aim of bringing the three industries together to aid sick kids.
Under the guidance of Lee Rosenberg, senior vice president of the William Morris Agency and Starbright World's project leader, the foundation hopes to have five of the nation's major pediatric hospitals on-line by the end of the year.
The nobility of the cause and the power of Spielberg, the foundation's chairman, has attracted a combined investment of nearly $10 million by the corporations supplying the technology to get the project up and running over the next three years: Worlds Inc., Intel Corp., UB Networks and Sprint International.
Each of the four firms also hope the experience will be useful in learning how to adapt similar technology for commercial uses. "Social computing" has proven to be a profitable concept in a two-dimensional, text-based world, and elevating it to the next dimension may be even more so. Still, amid the high-tech revolution, it is rare to find an application for technology that does more than make things faster and less expensive.
"It's not just about entertainment," Spielberg said at the Digital World trade show in Los Angeles on Monday. "It's about using entertainment and technology to create new tools to help these kids heal."
Sitting in front of a personal computer at the Biltmore Hotel, he wandered through a 3-D tropical world, past a rainbow and waterfall, and up into a cloud-filled sky, where he met several children at Lucile Salter Packard Children's Hospital at Stanford, the first hospital linked into the network.
Using video conferencing equipment, Spielberg switched between viewing the children's animated representations and their actual images in the hospital, chatting about their hobbies and favorite TV shows.
The most telling moment was when Spielberg asked one of them, Vanessa, where she was. From her chair in the Palo Alto, Calif., hospital room, in a tone that indicated it should have been obvious, she gave her coordinates in the Starbright world: "I'm next to the castle."