Virtual reality a powerful, complex tool for courtrooms

Nowadays, it seems like I can’t go 24 hours without needing to update an app. Similarly, when I get a new piece of technology, soon after I unsurprisingly find out that a newer model of whatever I just bought has come out, and my technology is quickly old-fashioned soon after. Technology changes so quickly, and it seems like I can’t keep up. Remember when having a the latest flip phone was so cool?

With every type of technology, updates and changes are constantly occurring as engineers and scientists look to create “the next best thing.” These days, virtual reality platforms seem to be the new “it,” and multiple companies and organizations are working to take virtual reality to a place it’s never been before, such as the Vassar students that founded vcemo, which was featured in a December issue of the Misc (“Students stay ahead of curve with virtual reality start-up,“ 12.03.14).

Virtual reality itself is nothing new. The idea has been used in literature since at least the 1930s, and the first demonstrated use of an actual virtual reality system occurred in the 1960s, with Thomas A. Furness III inventing virtual flight simulation for use by the U.S. Air Force (Samuel Ebersole, “A brief history of virtual reality and its social applications,” 1997). However, since the emergence of virtual reality, it has also been altered and enhanced endlessly to match with the technology of the times or specialize the tech for specific fields.

But here’s a question about virtual reality besides how interesting it is: Should virtual reality be used in the courtroom? Researchers from the Institute of Forensic Medicine, Virtopsy, and the University of Zurich in Winterthurerstrasse, Switzerland are leaning towards yes in their recently published study, “The forensic holodeck: an immersive display for forensic crime scene reconstructions.” (Forensic Science, Medicine, and Pathology, 10(4), 2014)

The study in question investigates how the use of virtual reality could be used instead of other modalities to reconstruct crime scenes for the jury. The use of a virtual reality headset in the courtroom would allow jurors to be simulated into the crime scene and gain a deeper understanding of the situation they are evaluating (Popular Science, “Scientists want to take virtual reality to court,” 01.09.15).

The device used in the study was a headset originally developed for players of computer and video games to enjoy and be immersed in all sorts of virtual worlds. The subtraction of video games and addition of 3D modeling software allows for the virtual reality product to be useful at a relatively low cost. The 3D software allows one to easily reconstruct a scene, such as a shooting, which was the scene used in the study by the researchers. Imagery and other information can be collected to provide as realistic a space as possible for the jurors to experience.

The study has received a lot of positive praise, and Director Jeremy Bailenson of the Virtual Human Interaction Lab at Stanford University has suggested this technology may be the best new addition to any trial’s analytical arsenal (New Scientist, “Forensic holodeck to transport jury to the crime scene,” 01.09.15).

The idea with virtual reality in courtrooms is that this advanced technology will give jurors a more comprehensible idea of the scene they’re asked to imagine in a trial, but despite its effectiveness, I still have my doubts.

One of the large issues I have with the idea of bringing virtual reality into the courtroom is what exactly jurors would be presented when they put on the goggles. Would they be looking at a crime scene that has been highly suggested to be correct by a strong backing of evidence or are they looking at a possible framing of events that may or may not be a correct theory from the prosecution? There would need to be a set standard of what exactly from a crime scene is allowed to be replicated in the virtual reality courtroom world for me to feel comfortable with the technology even being introduced. I think it is important to know exactly what the jury is being presented virtually.

Another issue I have with the introduction of virtual reality is how the jury physically views crime scenes in the recreated space. Are jurors going to view the crime scene from the accused’s point of view? The victim(s)’? Perhaps from a third party bystander’s point of view? Are jurors going to be able to flip through different viewpoints? The angle and perception from which a juror is able to view a crime scene could lead to large biases and once again, standardization would most likely need to occur.

I would also be interested to see which viewpoint(s) would be selected as well as the justification of why that viewpoint has been chosen by the prosecution, defense or another party. These seemingly minute differences in a virtual reality space can have a serious impact on how the jurors interpret and understand the incident.

What we must also consider is the effect virtual reality may have on jurors not only while making their decisions of whether someone is guilty or not guilty, but also the effect of experiencing a replicated crime scene in such a vivid, realistic space. If a juror is involved in a gruesome murder case and is forced to watch the replication in virtual reality, it could have a serious impact on their own life or mental state—effects that our legal system can have on jurors have been constantly assessed and evaluated for years, particularly with photographs.

Some in the legal system even note that in many cases the impact of photographs may even not be worth it, depending on the trial at hand and how it would affect the jurors. It is predicted that virtual reality will face the same issues and need the same sort of evaluations (Lect Law, “Virtual Reality Evidence: Jeffery A. Dunn,” 2014-2015).

While I clearly have my doubts about virtual reality being implemented into the courtroom, I would not be surprised if I soon read that it’s already happening. There still appears to be a lot of kinks in figuring out how it would be best to utilize this technology in the legal system, but just like the apps on our phones, updates to virtual reality in the courtroom will probably be often and altered for each specific case. It will be interesting to see how the technology continues to develop, and how long it will be until it’s officially introduced to the courtroom and concerned a part of the norm.


—Delaney Fischer ’15 is a neuroscience major.

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