The Stack Archive

Forensic holodeck to introduce virtual crime scenes into court

Mon 12 Jan 2015

Oculus Rift virtual reality headsets may soon be presented to judges and juries in the courtroom to help lead to more informed decisions, following research at the Institute of Forensic Medicine in Zurich, Switzerland.

For the past few years, investigators have been using 3D technologies to analyse crime scenes – from lasers which map the scenes to MRI and CT scans which collect detailed data and images of people’s injuries. However, this information tends to be looked over in court.

“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,” said Lars Ebert, research member at the Institute.

Ebert explained the importance of 3D information taking gun crime as an example. When bullet trajectories are presented on paper in 2D “it’s difficult to get an idea of how it moved in space,” he said. “But the second you see it in 3D, you know where it originated, where it goes, how close all the people and objects are.”

“Imagine you could transport the entire jury, the judge, the litigators – everybody – back to the crime scene during the crime,” said Jeremy Bailenson of the Virtual Human Interaction Lab at Stanford University, California. “That would be the best thing possible for any trial.”

Ebert and has team decided to work with Oculus Rift, a headset designed for gamers to enjoy an immersive gaming experience. When information from a particular crime scene is entered into the software, it produces a 3D reconstruction or a ‘forensic holodeck’ – named after the Star Trek simulation device.

During testing, a virtual crime scene was presented to police officers who were present at the scene. An officer had remarked that the reconstruction “was exactly what it was like when I was standing there and the guy was shooting at me,” said Ebert.

A further benefit of the 3D scene is that elements can be added and removed. Irrelevant or distracting details can therefore be deleted. The characters in the mock-up are designed with relevant height, arm length, and posture, but remain anonymous and lose any distracting information.

The technology is also being considered as a way of adopting another person’s line of sight. However, Damian Schofield of the State University of New York in Oswego suggests that this capability could have an unintended effect. “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,” he said.

Before the forensic holodecks can be used in courtrooms, Ebert’s team must continue to test the technology, ensuring that it accurately reconstructs 3D scenes. However, experts such as Bailenson have said that it will not be long before virtual reality technologies feature in court – “There is an arms race among big tech firms, and there are going to be high-quality, cheap, head-mounted displays very soon.”


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