Who let the dogs out? The UCHealth app’s augmented reality feature did.

AR pilot is a sign of things to come, all in the service of patient well-being.
March 22, 2023
photo of how AR shows a dog within the UCHealth app that you can interact with.
Now you see Rover, now you don’t. The UCHealth app’s first augmented reality feature aims to bring smiles to patients’ faces – and pave the way for AR to help patients in different ways. Photos for UCHealth by Todd Neff.

Perhaps you’ve noticed the button in the center of the UCHealth App – a box in which a sketch of a box shares space with the words “Augmented Reality.”

Several thousand UCHealth patients already have, because they’ve tapped that box and launched the first of what promises to be many augmented-reality (AR) experiences integrated into the UCHealth mobile phone app.

Doing so activates their mobile-phone’s camera (assuming they grant permission) and takes them to wherever the camera happens to be pointing. The AR system adds to the scene something that’s not actually there: a motley band of four dogs, including an Akita, a corgi, a Jack Russell terrier, and a pug. One chooses a breed, gives it a name, and can then interact with the virtual canine in ways that include throwing it a bone, tossing a tennis ball for it to fetch, having it sit, having it lie down, and having it bark (though “mute” is also an option).

But first, a pop-up appears as if to address the unspoken question of what all this has to do with health care at a prominent academic medical center. It reads: “HEALTH TIP: Interacting with animals lowers your blood pressure and decreases levels of the stress hormone cortisol.”

And there’s more to it than that, too.

Dogs are just the first steps for more app AR

The AR pilot earned some prime real estate on the UCHealth app as shown here on the homepage.
The AR pilot earned some prime real estate on the UCHealth app.

The virtual dogs represent UCHealth’s first foray into augmented reality. The aims were simple, said Nicole Caputo, UCHealth’s senior director of Experience and Innovation. Her team wanted to prove out the ability to embed AR into the UCHealth app in a fun, simple way that acquaints patients with the technology.

“We wanted to learn more about the technology and how our patients would respond to it. There wasn’t much more than that for this first experience,” Caputo said. “So why not do something to bring joy to people?”

As one observes a pug fetching a tennis ball (this writer’s puggle wouldn’t have fetched any ball not made of hamburger), it is hard not to at least smile.

Mission accomplished.

And AR is a stepping stone, Caputo adds, though not toward the logical next step of virtual reality. That’s because UCHealth has been doing VR – the one with the eye-covering headsets and headphones through which people immerse themselves in a digital environment – since 2017. It’s been a hit with thousands of patients prior to surgery and during chemotherapy, wound care, burn care, and more.

Why have digital dogs in the UCHealth app?

Caputo and her UCHealth team worked with Denver-based August Allen to develop the AR pilot. Justin Hayes, the agency’s creative director, said the only firm idea going in was to “put a smile on people’s faces.”

“I think pretty much straight away, we decided to do a dating kind of thing and match up people with dogs,” Hayes said.

They considered going for something hyper-realistic by bringing in real dogs and filming them in front of a green screen but opted for digital renderings because, as he put it, “We realized there were challenges with live animals.”

Going with digital dogs also gave them wide berth regarding facial expressions, tail wags, and other movements, Hayes said. An ability to control each joint independently provided a range of possibilities for action. The team went with those four particular breeds because they’re cute and friendly and represent a range of sizes from midsize to small dogs. The idea was that fans of larger dogs could go with the Akita, and those of smaller breeds might choose the pug. Bigger breeds didn’t make the cut mainly because they’d fill the entire mobile-phone screen, he added.

More AR to come within the UCHealth app

A quick development cycle – about three months leading to a soft launch in October 2022 – meant that certain ideas would have to wait.

photo of how AR shows a dog within the UCHealth app that you can interact with.
A range of possible canine companions awaits the user. They were chosen, the function’s creators say, to offer a range of sizes to users. But all are intentionally cute.

Those hours are now going into new AR ideas. Up next, Caputo says, will be AR games that support brain health and meditation.

“Getting a couple of memory or spatial games into the app will not only be great in fostering wellness but will also allow us to broaden the AR library and help refine our sense of what kind of content our patients respond to,” Caputo said.

Caputo said her term views AR as a way to deliver better experiences to patients that could manifest in lots of ways over time. Billing is one example.

“Forms, bills – even appointment instructions – can be confusing. We’d like to use the AR environment to allow the patient to control the experience and get answers in a more descriptive, interactive way,” she said. “It would be a huge win to turn education into an engaging experience.

Either way, the AR dog is now out of the bag at UCHealth (apologies to the cats who typically inhabit the colloquialism).

“The opportunities are endless – it’s very similar to VR in that way,” Caputo said. “The more people hear and learn about the positive outcomes from VR, the more interest and excitement we get. It’s going to be the same with AR.”


About the author

Todd Neff has written hundreds of stories for University of Colorado Hospital and UCHealth. He covered science and the environment for the Daily Camera in Boulder, Colorado, and has taught narrative nonfiction at the University of Colorado, where he was a Ted Scripps Fellowship recipient in Environmental Journalism. He is author of “A Beard Cut Short,” a biography of a remarkable professor; “The Laser That’s Changing the World,” a history of lidar; and “From Jars to the Stars,” a history of Ball Aerospace.