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Virtual Reality, a possibility for the future of the courtroom

Researchers at the University of South Australia have been exploring the possibility of adopting Virtual Reality headsets to inspect crime scenes

VR tech has been around for a long time now, and many think it’s just for gaming or shopping or checking out where you’ll be staying when you go on holiday. But the uses of Virtual Reality go far beyond that, with professionals in different areas adopting the technology to expand their learning and provide simulations that ready them for real life experiences. From use in military training, to healthcare professionals using it for simulating surgeries to learn and as phobia treatments, to using them in care homes for the elderly to help them ‘get out and experience’ something new and/or take trips down memory lane. The uses of Virtual Reality go further than what we could imagine, and for a jury in a courtroom, it could be the next step in providing a look into different perspectives of a crime scene and how it happened. Enabling courts to get more consistent verdicts and fairer trials, VR has been considered for use in these situations for longer than we realise.

The researchers at the University of South Australia have been exploring the possibility of adopting Virtual Reality headsets to inspect crime scenes and how it could help jurors to make decisions in courtroom trials. In May of this year, they published a paper detailing the ins and outs of how it could affect the impact of viewing a crime scene in both VR and on the typical photographic slideshow. The overall result was that viewing in VR led the participants to a more consistent verdict as opposed to one based solely on photos. They built their experimental prototype using a VIVE Pro Eye VR headset and Unity gaming engine.

The researchers had two groups of 15 participants to view the same scenario, one group exploring in VR, and the other group was given purely photographs to examine, the mock crime scene was the aftermath of a dispute between two people in a parking lot in which one was killed. The findings were significant, and the different ways the evidence was presented clearly had an impact on how the information of the crime scene was interpreted and how it impacted the end result of their mock verdicts. The group that was looking at the scene in VR, over 86% (13 out of 15 participants) deemed the case was ‘death by dangerous driving’. In the group with just photographs to view, only 46% believed the same, with a majority of 8 out of 15 participants establishing a lesser cause, ‘death by driving without due care’.

With the group that had the experience in VR, the interactive side of it allowed the jury to review the crime scene in their way, allowing them to create a link between what happened and how based on what they could see and the ability to be placed in the accused’s point of view, of which 6 of 15 participants said this really impacted their verdict. The group that was shown just photos were able to view the VR scenario after the experiment, and one of them claimed they would’ve changed their more lenient initial verdict, whereas those who chose a more damning verdict felt more strongly about their original decision.

"The verdict 'Death by dangerous driving' was 9.5 times more likely to be chosen by participants who viewed the scene in VR," wrote the researchers. "A possible explanation for this result may be the amount of information that can be presented in VR…. An immersive scene allows large amounts of information to be presented in a way that is manageable, and participants took advantage of the exploration in a way that may have better supported their mental model."

Something not uncommon in court trials is the jury being taken to the crime scene, which can cost the courts a significant amount of time and money, whereas the VR experience can reduce overall costs and reduce viewing times of the crime scene down to mere hours. Although it isn’t a sure thing that this will happen, and more than likely it will take over a decade for the justice system to consider introducing this into their courtrooms as we all know justice systems aren’t ones for hurrying things along. But overall, the impact made is quite astonishing, and the time taken to review court cases could be significantly reduced.

This isn’t the first time Virtual Reality has been considered for use in a courtroom, researchers at the Institute of Forensic Medicine at the University of Zurich proposed the idea in 2014 and published a paper and a video that examined the use of the Oculus Rift headset to explore 3D computerised reconstructions of crime scenes and events discussed at trials. They claimed it would become a new form of “illustrative aid” like photos, charts, maps and medical records that jurors and judges are usually presented with.

So overall, it has been considered before and more research is being carried out on the subject, but there are plenty of arguments that defendants would have to pay for the headset themselves and criminals are more than likely not able to provide that sort of outcome. It’s a path that is long and winding but with all technology, I believe it will come to fruition eventually.


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