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Healing Spaces | Re-imagining dementia care through playful, multi-sensory experiences

A smart platform caregivers can use to transform spaces through light and color, & explore the senses in the most delightful way.

Photo of Gabriela Gomes
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Who is your idea designed for and how does it better support family caregivers as they care for a loved one with dementia?

Healing Spaces is designed for both professional and family caregivers, and those with mid to advanced dementia. This project focuses on the design of playful sensory experiences that have the potential to address the behavioral and psychological symptoms of dementia. It is also a toolset for caregivers to better manage and conduct sensory-based activities.


Healing Spaces is my thesis project for the MFA in Interactive Media program at the University of Southern California. 

Inspired by the research legacy of traditional Multisensory Environments (MSEs) and their benefits, the goal is to harness the power of our non-visual senses - sound, smell, taste, touch - to instill a greater sense of wonder and play, or of peace and quietness. It's about making sensory stimulation more accessible and meaningful for those who experience sensory input difficulties in their everyday surroundings, and who tend to no longer engage in cognitive-based activities. In helping reduce challenging behavior, we also believe in the project's potential to improve wellbeing and the relationship between caregivers and care-recipients.

Healing Spaces is also a toolset for caregivers to better manage and conduct sensory-based activities. With this platform, caregivers can create a 'healing space' for their loved ones or care-recipients wherever they are. By providing guidance and facilitating the setup of multi-sensory experiences on a technical level and by combining all components into one easy-to-use package, we want to leverage one's ability to provide and conduct sensory activities for persons with dementia in a wide range of care situations. 

As an experience designer and visual artist, I am interested in both human-centered and play-centric design processes, and combining both to create more thoughtful, playful and effective digital interventions to manage behavior in persons with dementia. Healing Spaces is about embracing technology, and making it more accessible, engaging and impactful.


Setting an ambiance: caregivers set a mood for the space

These can serve as background for any activities, and can be either stimulating or more calming and relaxing. We want to allow caregivers to take persons with dementia to different ecosystems and worlds through light, colors, sounds, smells, visuals and touch - in a balanced and controlled way. With the Philips Hue wireless lights, we are exploring light as a storytelling tool and as a way to connect users to different emotions and places. 

Through our interface, we also provide guidance on introducing physical elements such as smell, touch and taste in line with the digital experiences we design for you. 

We want to make sure the user experience as smooth as possible for caregivers. For that reason, all components, technical and analog, are centralized into one intuitive app. Our goal is to make the setup of lights and any other tech components as easy as possible. We will be putting together printed documentation with clear instructions, and before users begin an experience, our smart app will also make sure the lights and any other physical outputs are properly connected and ready to go.


Our experiences are inspired by nature's healing qualities. For the pilot study, caregivers can choose between two natural settings: ocean and forest.  They may also choose a time of day, such as sunrise or sunset. With the tap of a button, the chosen ecosystem is brought to life through color (Hue lights), natural soundscapes (speakers) and peaceful visuals (projector). Combining these tech components with themed sensory boxes and tangible elements that address touch and smell, our goal is to make multi-sensory sessions more focused and meaningful.


The Play Mode

The Play mode is where you will find games that explore the convergence of physical and virtual worlds. These are inspired by activities that are already popular in dementia care, and our goal is to leverage what we know works already, but giving additional value to game design and our non-visual senses.

In each Play experience, we have defined four phases:

Preparation phase

This is where we work with caregivers to discuss what is needed for the experience. In this section, we outline early set-up requirements. It’s recipe-like content - preparation time, what ingredients are needed to conduct the activity. We outline the physical props that are needed, any food or drinks that might go along with the experience and might need to be ordered in advance. Through an intuitive interface, we try to make the planning process as straight-forward as possible.

The Warm Up phase

The caregiver has all the props, the space is set-up and it is now time to bring in the care-recipient. Our warm-up phase is the invitation to play. With the tap of a button, the warm-up phase begins as the lights and sounds set the tone for the upcoming experience. The idea is to create a comfortable and inviting environment for the person with dementia . It’s a ritual phase, where we slowly bring both caregivers and care-recipients into the magic circle. 

The Experience itself

As the person with dementia is settled within the space and the caregiver judges it’s a good time to start the pre-set experience, it’s another tap of a button and it begins. At any moment the caregiver may pause, restart or stop the activity altogether.

The cool-down phase

As the experience ends, this is the moment for dialogue and discussion. Lights and sounds go back a similar subtle state as in the warm-up phase, and we provide prompts for the caregiver to engage with the care-recipient and reflect on what they just experienced.


'Choose Your Own Adventure', our take on sensory storytelling and reminiscing sessions

We decided to bring the exploration mechanics of ‘Choose Your Own Adventure' and point-and-click adventure games to explore new ways to leverage sensory storytelling and reminiscing sessions. Our digital component encourages interaction with physical props, and also tries to include smell and taste as an integral part of the game. There is no winning state, and it’s about extending the digital layer into the space and promoting social interaction between participants. We want to emphasize the idea that immersion is not about needing a large screen or a VR headset to bring you to different worlds. Through this experience, we want to show that immersion is about infusing storytelling in every detail possible - in how the space feels through light and color, and in the smells, textures and tastes. 

Embodied Play

Our way to explore one's proprioceptive senses. We are currently experimenting with AR and object recognition through the iPad’s camera to bring virtual elements to the physical world. We’re interested in creating gesture-based interactions with the physical lights and virtual objects, allowing users to feel control over their movements with different types of sensory feedback.


As a designer, my primary goal is to work with caregivers and older adults to truly understand their real life experiences and needs. I strongly believe in co-design as a foundation for new ideas and responses to challenges. With that in mind, Healing Spaces is about connecting with the community - persons with dementia, caregivers, and stakeholders alike - in order to create the most impactful and meaningful experiences.

Healing Spaces is coming to life with the help and support of the Front Porch Center for Innovation and Wellbeing. This collaboration has been crucial in establishing a connection with the users we are designing for. As an intern, I have been able to connect with some of Front Porch communities in the LA area, and through observation and field research, to infuse my design process with insights from staff and caregivers. My goal is to bring as much of their own caregiving experiences to the platform, as a way to facilitate integration in their day-to-day practice. 

The development of Healing Spaces also involves a team of USC students from various disciplines, and professionals in the realms of gerontology, occupational therapy, games and media design as advisors.


  • Maryalice Jordan-Marsh | USC School of Social Work
  • Dennis Wixon | USC School of Cinematic Arts

latest prototype (alpha)

After a series of small digital and paper prototypes, we switched our focus to building a more robust prototype with main features and functionality in place.

From a technical standpoint, our goal was to make sure our development pipeline with Unity was reliable, efficient and stable, especially when it comes to connecting the platform with the Hue lights. I had been promising a smooth experience with all these tech components, so making sure our small team could make it happen was one major priority!

This prototype had to also be a bridge between us, the designers, and the staff of the community we've been working with. The goal has always been to include them in our design process, but I had to first convey my vision and allow them to fully understand the potential of the tools we're working with. And a prototype is worth more than a thousand words. 

After listening to feedback from advisors, fellow classmates and faculty, we took a step back and decided to revisit our core features, and scope our prototype with our pilot study in mind. As a platform, Healing Spaces can grow in many ways and have a multitude of features. Our modular approach allows us to design with those in mind, but testing the core features was the immediate priority. 

(Alpha Prototype - core functionality in)

(Alpha Prototype - basic experience flow. User begins forest experience -> Hue lights are set to forest ambiance colors, sounds and visuals begin)

During the second week of December, I sat down with a couple of staff members from the community where we'll be piloting the project to show the prototype. It was a very productive session, as I learned more about how my core features met their expectations, if they understood what it did, and even if they would picture themselves using the app. I was able to identify which features or touch points were meaningful and important, and which ones were unnecessary or missing. As these questions were answered, I led a small brainstorming session on the types of content they would like to see, or would be most meaningful to the residents. By the end of the meeting, I had narrowed down our scope for the pilot study significantly, as you can see in the Core Features section.

What early, lightweight experiment might you try out in your own community to find out if the idea will meet your expectations?

With a robust prototype in the works for Spring 2018, my goal is to maintain regular visits to one of the communities we're working with, sharing weekly prototypes and gathering feedback.

We also plan to conduct playtest sessions and workshops with caregivers, in collaboration with the USC Family Caregiver Support Center, making sure we also have the perspective from those caring for loved ones at home.

What skills, input, or guidance from the OpenIDEO community would be most helpful in building out or refining your idea?

As we prepare for our first pilot next semester to collect feasibility data and build an initial case study, our project could benefit from guidance in how we could start consolidating the idea for a larger scale deployment, moving from a MFA thesis to an actual product, or experience package, as we like to call it. If there are any writers, artists, sound designers, iOS developers and engineers in the community who are interested in the project, we would love to hear from you!

How long has your idea existed?

  • 4 months - 1 year

This idea emerged from

  • An Individual

Tell us about your work experience:

I am an experience designer & visual artist, currently pursuing a MFA in Interactive Media & Game Design at the School of Cinematic Arts in Los Angeles, California. Experience with interaction design, visual design and film. More:

How would you describe this idea while in an elevator with someone?

A smart platform that allows caregivers to transform spaces through light, color, sounds and visuals, turning any space into a place where people with dementia can focus and relax. Inspired by the research legacy of traditional Multisensory Environments (MSEs), our app works together with Philips Hue smart lights, and is designed to extend the virtual experience into the physical space.

How does your idea demonstrate our Criteria of Accessibility?

We use commercially available off-the-shelf components and take into consideration the reusability of each component in other aspects of care. We chose to design this smart platform as an app for the iPad because it gives caregivers and our end users instant portable access to not only our experiences, but also to a whole ecosystem of applications and resources. We also adopted a modular design approach. Healing Spaces is made to work with both low-end and high-end setups (see Setup infographic)

How does your idea demonstrate or plan to demonstrate scalability?

In its post-thesis life, Healing Spaces would be available for download in the App Store, and would also have a robust online presence, a centralized place where caregivers can find extensive documentation, resources and updates, learn more about sensory-based activities and engage with the community. I would love this home page to encourage users to build upon our tools, and share their own experiences with our product, allowing us to keep creating content that is fresh and meaningful.

How do you plan to measure the impact of your idea?

We’ll be conducting a feasibility study in a memory care community in late February. Our goal is to examine if Healing Spaces helps reduce agitation in persons with dementia, if it is engaging for both users, and if it makes sensory-based activities easier & more enjoyable. We'll be using two assessment tools to measure agitation and engagement, as well as direct observation notes, surveys and interviews with caregivers. Results will be shared in the form of a case study.

What are your immediate next steps after the Challenge?

- Finalize pilot study design, measurable outcomes and IRB application.
- Incorporate Alpha prototype feedback to new iteration and content creation.
- Refine and polish prototype for the pilot study, focusing on simplicity - core features and meaningful content.
- Maintain weekly visits to the community, showing staff a new iteration of the prototype each week.


Join the conversation:

Photo of Ymkje

Exciting to use environmental tools to modify mood/focus/behavior! I look forward to learning what tools you end up using to measure efficacy. There are some great ones out there. You could also stay in the qualitative side and gather user feedback. Main hurdle I can imagine is the materials and education needed to implement. I work closely with families navigating dementia and know their bandwidth will likely be short. Financial concerns are predominant too. I wonder if Philips would be interested in donating/promoting? And what about connecting with smart home tech companies around this?

Photo of Gabriela

Hi Ymkje Dioquino ! Thank you for the feedback!

We will be gathering user feedback in late February and measuring efficacy a little later in Spring. And yes, you're right - documentation and instructions are crucial, and also require thoughtful design. These are part of the deliverables for my thesis, and would be in our future website, which I also envision as a tool to make multi-sensory activities resources more accessible and centralized in one place.

Regarding Philips, yes, we are definitely going to reach out ... just waiting to get our demo ready!

I'd love to connect and hear more about your thoughts on research, the financial concerns and the project itself! Let me know what would be the best way to get it touch!

Thank you!

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