Lake views from the Milwaukee innovation labs

Judy Berdan

Strategic Philanthropy Consultant, Northwestern Mutual

Nick Wichert

Senior Director of Product Innovation, Northwestern Mutual

Topics: home.

Butterfly Island: A Virtual Oasis for Kids Facing Cancer

We recently wrapped up a project that ranks right up there with some of the most unique work we've ever done. We collaborated to develop a virtual reality experience, called Butterfly Island, with a specific group of users in mind – kids and families that need a break from reality.

On Butterfly Island, users try to catch as many butterflies as possible with their net. Along the way, they can a stop at a lemonade stand, sit on the beach and watch the waves come ashore, hunt for treasure or hang out with friendly animals. With the sounds of rushing water and birds chirping in the background, Butterfly Island is an immersive, calming environment that allows the user to escape.

So, why did we, a Fortune 500 financial services company, develop a virtual reality game for kids facing cancer?

First, working on projects like this allows us to experiment with virtual reality technology. At this point, we're not exactly sure how we will apply VR to create value for our company and our clients, but there's no doubt that virtual reality will eventually find its place in the business environment.

Second, projects like this inspire the innovator in all of us. The concept took shape last year during one of our company’s Enterprise Venture Fund campaigns, where we're encouraged to explore the use of technology to create new products and solutions. The company awards funding for research and development of selected projects, and it was an honor to be chosen to pursue the healing aspects of virtual reality while exploring this emerging technology.

Finally, Butterfly Island gives us an opportunity to leverage technology and our experience to do good. Since 2012, our Northwestern Mutual Foundation has focused on childhood cancer; to accelerate the search for a cure and provide support for kids and their families. Butterfly Island embodies that commitment. And from a personal standpoint, it's really satisfying to know that we can make a difference in the lives of children. Our hope is that Butterfly Island helps to lessen the anxiety associated with the cancer journey — even if it's just to give kids five minutes to be a kid on a tropical island.

We're proud to have been a part of bringing Butterfly Island to life. But we also want to give credit where credit is due.

  • The kids at the Southeastern Wisconsin Ronald McDonald House colored the butterflies you'll see in the app.
  • Jackie Wichert, a licensed clinical social worker, suggested we put the butterflies on an island with waterfalls, a setting which has been shown in her clinical research to have a calming effect.
  • Digital Iris, a team of creators, artists and developers, created the experience.

Butterfly Island is available at the Google Play Store and works with Google Cardboard and other certified viewers. The game also works in conjunction with Xbox Bluetooth controllers.

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