Guilty or innocent? To help them decide, judges and juries are often presented with reams of evidence: crime scene photos, medical documents or suspected bullet trajectories – all on paper. But could allowing people to watch the crime unfold from the comfort of the courtroom lead to more informed judgments?
This may soon be possible, thanks to the virtual reality headset Oculus Rift. “Imagine you could transport the entire jury, the judge, the litigators – everybody – back to the crime scene during the crime,” says Jeremy Bailenson of the Virtual Human Interaction Lab at Stanford University in California. “That would be the best thing possible for any trial.”
Over the last few years, investigators have begun deploying sophisticated technology that captures 3D information about a crime scene. This can range from using lasers to map the entire scene to using MRI and CT scanners to get a detailed picture of people’s injuries.
However, when the case gets to court, a lot gets discarded. “We have detailed measurements and all this 3D information, but then we hand it over on paper, and that comes with a loss of information,” says Lars Ebert at the Institute of Forensic Medicine in Zurich, Switzerland, who works with police to collect evidence subsequently presented to judges and prosecutors.
In some cases, 3D information is vital. Take gun crime. Conventionally, bullet trajectories are presented in 2D – on paper. “What you have is a line on paper, and it’s difficult to get an idea of how it moved in space,” says Ebert. “But the second you see it in 3D, you know where it originated, where it goes, how close all the people and objects are.”
To allow evidence to be assessed in 3D, Ebert and his colleagues turned to Oculus Rift, a headset used by gamers to provide an immersive environment. The team entered all the information about a particular shooting into software for the device. This allowed them to create a 3D reconstruction of the crime, complete with bullet trajectory. The team call their system the “forensic holodeck” after the Star Trek simulated reality device.
When Ebert presented the reconstruction to police officers who had been at the scene, they were impressed. “They said, ‘Wow, that was exactly what it was like when I was standing there and the guy was shooting me’,” says Ebert.
One benefit of a digital reconstruction is that it offers the opportunity to remove details as well as add them – something that might be useful for jury members presented with a potentially traumatic scene, or one with distracting and irrelevant details. Ebert’s team intentionally used software that creates videogame characters to populate their gun crime reconstruction. The resulting figures retain relevant details such as height, arm length and posture, for example, but aren’t clearly identifiable and have lost other potentially distracting information.
Virtual reality could also allow judges and juries to experience another person’s line of sight, says Bailenson, which could be useful when figuring out if a witness could have seen a suspect. But this could have an unintended effect, cautions Damian Schofield at the State University of New York in Oswego, who develops digital reconstructions. “Think of a murder scene: whether you view it from the point of view of the murderer, the victim or a third person will totally change your perception of what’s happening.” However, he doesn’t think this will halt the technology’s adoption in court.
Before the forensic holodeck can be used in court, Ebert’s team will have to ensure it does accurately represent 3D environments. Bailenson thinks it won’t be long before virtual reality features in courtrooms around the world: “There is an arms race among big tech firms, and there are going to be high-quality, cheap, head-mounted displays very soon“.
Journal reference: Forensic Science, Medicine and Pathology, DOI: 10.1007/s12024-014-9605-0
Source: New Scientist