Ann Arbor-based SpellBound adapts augmented reality products to motivate patients in isolation

This story is part of a series about Washtenaw County businesses' response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Support for this series is provided by Ann Arbor SPARK.

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, SpellBound founder and CEO Christina York was concerned that her company might not survive. Ann Arbor-based SpellBound creates interactive augmented reality experiences, delivered via mobile device, to distract and motivate young patients in health care settings. York knew her health care industry clients had to focus on combating the virus, but she and her team found a new need for SpellBound's technology: helping pediatric patients in recovery and isolation.


Since its inception in 2016, SpellBound offered a variety of programs and digital experiences for health care providers to help pediatric patients with difficult procedures or chronic conditions to manage pain through procedure simulations and distraction therapy. The concept was inspired by York's personal experience with her daughter struggling to remain calm during a difficult procedure.


However, once the pandemic hit and began to overwhelm hospitals and clinics, York says everything was put on hold. SpellBound employees began to work from home and the team spent time talking to doctors and nurses who were available, trying to understand how the industry was changing and how SpellBound could adjust to the new landscape.


"We were trying to learn how this is impacting patients that don't have COVID day-to-day and the other ripple effects of the pandemic," York says.


At first York felt helpless, since SpellBound couldn't build ventilators or personal protective equipment. But she says health care professionals were concerned about the effects of isolation protocols for non-COVID patients. The lack of visitors can have negative effects on a patient's mental health and decrease participation in recovery treatment, and lack of movement can increase risk of pneumonia and sepsis.


"We looked at these issues and knew we could help," York says. "We knew we could use this technology to motivate patients to move and gamify their environment."


SpellBound had a digital scavenger hunt product, ARISE, in the works at the time. The scavenger hunt takes patients on a mission to rebuild a virtual coral reef and requires the patient to go from point to point, encouraging mobility and engaging the imagination. Although it was originally designed to be used in a hospital hallway, the team modified ARISE to be used in an isolation room.


In June, SpellBound received $1.8 million from the National Institute on Drug Abuse to study ARISE's impact on reducing chronic pain and opioid use in postoperative pediatric oncology patients. ARISE is currently in beta testing with three health care centers across the country, and York plans to make ARISE available for other hospitals starting in 2021.


"This is a safe thing to use with kids, and it’s on a familiar device," York says. "This is a great opportunity to do something that’s low-risk that could have a high impact."


SpellBound is also looking to expand the technology to be a long-term treatment option for children with chronic diseases, such as sickle cell anemia. The digital challenges will be modified for home use so parents can help their children manage pain and encourage movement as part of their recovery.


"The at-home piece is so important. It’s not just an inpatient experience," York says. "We’re going to continue to add and create a system for a child with a chronic condition that never goes away."


Along with expanding products, SpellBound is preparing to adapt to the health care industry's needs in the current pandemic environment and in the future. The company has added two employees and several contractors to its team.


"There’s a lot of change in health care right now, and we need to also think about the things that aren't going to change," York says. "We're looking at the ways we can be most productive ourselves and support that patient journey."


For more Concentrate coverage of our community's response to the COVID-19 crisis, click here.


Emily Benda is a freelance writer based in Ann Arbor. You can contact her at


Photos courtesy of SpellBound.

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