CARACAS, VENEZUELA—On the east and west hills of Caracas children play happily and seemingly safely in the bright, clean and safe playgrounds that scatter these well-to-do neighbourhoods. You would not think, in such idyllic circumstances, that the children of Caracas would be in any danger—but you would be wrong. In 2016 alone there were dozens of reports of children with scraped knees, several sprained fingers, and a broken wrist because of the play equipment in these playgrounds.
“It’s just not good enough,” said Daniela Delgado, local counsellor and mother of 5. “Our children are in great danger of being hurt every time they venture into these playgrounds,” she explained. The alarming rise of injuries has not yet been noticed by local hospitals but Delgado says that is not going to stop her from taking action.
Delgado is leading the charge for a new innovative technology to be introduced to all playgrounds in Caracas—virtual play. The technology, developed by a number of Venezuelan gaming programers, simulates all of the activities of a typical playground minus the potential for harm.
“When children come to the new virtual playgrounds they will be escorted to specially designed chairs called play chairs and put on virtual reality goggles,” says José Rafael Peña, lead programmer for the project dubbed “lana de algodón” (“cotton wool”). “They can have the virtual experience of climbing on the monkey bars, swinging, and even running through the playground, all from the safety of the play chairs,” said Peña. “We think it will drastically reduce any injury in the playground and parents will feel very relaxed about their children playing here,” he explained.
The virtual reality that Peña and colleagues have created is startlingly realistic. The play equipment, surrounding areas, stray bullets and the odd abduction are all part of the immersive experience.
The project is not without criticism however—”It’s just a stupid idea! Kids should be able to play on real play equipment and scraping your knee is just part of it,” says Antonio, father of 3 and former malandros. “This playground was good enough for me and my brothers, why isn’t it good enough for my sons?” said Antonio gesturing with his pistol toward the swings in the middle of the playground.
Caracas, especially on the hills overlooking the city centre, is a carefree place under the Venezuelan sun. It seems absurd to think that this place hides such a dark secret as childhood playground injury (CPI)—yet it happens, more than the Venezuelan government would like to admit. Fortunately there are proactive people like Delgado and Peña who are overcoming the extraordinary technical and social challenges to make Caracas the safe place it portrays to the world.