Exploring Virtual Reality as a Forensic Tool

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Virtual reality (VR) offers unparalleled capabilities to support and facilitate forensic activities. VR is especially well suited for supporting use-cases where spatial information is critical, like accidents and crime scene reconstruction. When used appropriately, this emerging technology will be able to easily leapfrog over current alternatives.

VR is designed to trick human senses and immerse the user into a computer-generated world in a way that makes the user perceive, interact and feel like actually being there. This is referred as the sense of “presence.” In addition, the VR environment can be shared over the internet and users can interact remotely—therefore the term presence in the VR context is also referred to as telepresence. Long story short, a VR environment will make the user “feel” that he or she is at the scene.

Current needs in forensics 

The administration of justice and the overall judicial process requires significant preparatory work. In general, this is a time-consuming and expensive process. Processing a crime scene is a long, tedious ordeal that involves purposeful recording and documentation of the conditions at the scene, and the collection of any physical evidence that could provide clues and help determine what happened. The most logical explanations that investigators can recreate, in many cases, can still be very confusing for most people who didn’t have the possibility of being at the scene to comprehend easily.

The current “pain points" relate to the costs and difficulties associated with replicating a scene as an investigative and demonstrative working environment. Another area where improvement offers significant value is the collaboration and communication between investigators and prosecutors.

Value of VR in forensics

To improve justice and support a fair judicial process, society needs the most powerful and cost-effective tools investigators can use across multiple types of scenes. The time is right to leverage these capabilities and provide the best tool possible for investigators and others involved in criminal justice, including prosecutors, defenders, judges and eventually jurors. It is time to allow all of them to "teleport" to a virtual crime or accident scene as needed.

Nowadays, many agencies already capture crime scenes with highly sophisticated 3D laser scanners. They not only have this 3-D raw data readily available, but they are constantly forced to translate, reproduce and communicate such abundant and relevant 3-D/spatial information into a 2-D metaphor (such as diagrams, blueprints, pictures, videos, etc.)

Early conversations and demonstrations with recognized experts in the use of forensic 3-D metrology in the private and public sector have provided very interesting and positive feedback. One expert user said: “There is a distinct need for an intuitive method for the visualization of these rich, 3-D evidence data sets. VR provides this method and does it with little additional effort.”

VR could offer investigators, prosecutors, defenders, and other stakeholders’ multiple key benefits:

  • Revisit the crime scene: Users would be able to quickly and cost-effectively "teleport" to the crime or accident scene, walk through the scene as many times as needed, assess as many points of view as needed, perceiving the scene as close as possible to the original incident.

  • Collaboration: Users would be presented with the same virtual scene and share the same collaborative space—participants from multiple specialties and from multiple locations could be given access to a virtual scene as soon as it is digitalized. Users would be able to share annotations and knowledge contributed by individuals.

  • Knowledge acquisition: Increased capabilities for prosecutors to learn the facts around the scene being investigated, and to become more proficient about investigative techniques, increasing capacity to communicate with other stakeholders in a more compelling and cost-efficient manner, reducing the amount of back and forth and rework.

  • Compliance: VR environments could enable agencies to better observe, control and report on users as they perform their investigative tasks. The immersive nature of the VR environment could facilitate the verification of required procedures. Successful completion of the required investigative tasks could be tracked and reported.

A future article will elaborate in the potential risks of VR in Forensics, as well as what we expect to be the changes in the near future.

Eduardo Neeter is the Founder and CEO of FactualVR, a startup developing a virtual reality platform to help law enforcement and prosecutors accurately replicate and communicate the facts around a crime scene. Eduardo first began working in the field of virtual reality in a Japan-based research lab 22 years ago. Eduardo is also the co-chair of the VRARA (VR/AR Association) Criminal Justice Committee.

Exploring Virtual Reality as a Forensic Tool Criminal Justice

By Eduardo Neeter, Principal, FactualVR, Inc.

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Virtual reality (VR) offers unparalleled capabilities to support and facilitate forensic activities. VR and other related technologies, like augmented reality (AR) and mixed reality (MR) have been around for more than half a century, but it is only in the last few years that it has shown the potential to go mainstream.

The question if VR will successfully go through massive adoption, and if users will ever want to walk around with digital glasses that sense and display information everywhere is still not answered, and it will likely take a few years to know for sure.

What is clear at this point in time is—given the increased power and reduced cost of the VR building blocks that are required to provide a truly believable experience—this technology will be widely adopted across specific target domains. Tools supporting use-cases where spatial information is critical, like crime scene reconstruction, will be able to leapfrog current capabilities. For these specific areas, VR could prove to be the most powerful media ever invented.

Presence through immersion

The main capability offered by virtual reality is that it “tricks” the users into a sense of “presence.” The sense of presence is well defined1 as “the subjective experience of being in one place or environment even when physically situated in another.”

A VR environment can deliver the sense of presence by leveraging immersion capabilities. Immersion describes the extent to which technology is capable of delivering a vivid illusion of reality to the senses of a human participant. A well created VR environment will reproduce images and sounds of a scene from the point of view of the user, and deliver in real-time these images and sounds adjusted to each user’s eyes and ears, based on the user’s position and orientation. It will also render the digital images from the user’s perspective with enough precision and sufficient frequency that it causes the user’s brain to reconstruct a 3-D model of the scene, and place the user at the center of such model. Long story short, the VR environment makes the user “feel” that he or she is at the scene.

In addition, this idea can be extended to emphasize the fact that the VR experience is facilitated by means of a communication medium, and as such, it can take place remotely, therefore the term “presence” in the VR context is also referred to as “telepresence.”

VR/AR Association (VRARA) Criminal Justice Committee - Hands-on Encounter

With the interest to explore and study the impact of VR in policy and practices across the Criminal Justice domain, the VRARA Criminal Justice Committee was founded by co-chairs Rory Wells, Assistant Prosecutor in Ocean County, NJ, and Eduardo Neeter, Founder of FactualVR, a technology start-up providing VR services for crime scene reconstruction. The scope of the new committee includes a broad range of use-cases, such as investigations, future courtroom applications and rehabilitation.  

The VRARA Criminal Justice Committee held its first hands-on meeting September 22, 2017.  Multiple law enforcement agencies, academics, non-profits and providers from the United States and Canada met for a first of its kind seminar and discussion on the impact of VR and AR on the criminal justice system. The meeting covered demonstrations of the latest technology, including VR applications from event co-sponsors FARO Technologies and FactualVR. The topics ranged from training and investigations, to the use of VR at trial, and the use of VR for rehabilitation/reentry after serving time in prison.   

Participants included forensic professionals and officers from multiple crime scene units, including NYPD, Toronto PD, Westchester County, NY and Hudson County, NJ.

Discussions centered around or focused on the benefits and potential of VR technologies, compared with current tools and practices. One of the attendees said, “The person in charge of the case sometimes doesn’t go to the crime scene for days or weeks, and in some cases doesn’t go at all. With this technology, they could walk into the scene right away, whenever they want.”

Collaboration and communication between investigators and prosecutors appears to be an area of interest and could offer significant value. This area could demonstrate the potential of VR as a productivity tool, as it has the potential to allow people do things they couldn’t do before, and at the same time, be able to do it more efficiently and with less friction than ever.

Detective Donald Palmer from Westchester County (NY) attended the VRARA event in September. We met again at the IAFSM conference in Atlanta about six weeks later. At the IAFSM conference, Palmer mentioned they had already started to test the VR capabilities in-house.

“Based on the VRARA presentation we bought a VR headset," he said. "We have been testing the VR software and showing our bosses how the scans look in VR. Everyone is beyond impressed with it. We are going to work with the Forensic Coordinator ADA from our DA’s office to determine if or how this could be shown in court.”

Looking forward, we are witnessing the emerging of a medium that could change the way we communicate, especially how we communicate about places and scenes, and anything related to spatial and 3-D information. It’s not a matter of if but "when," as the technology continues to mature and becomes mainstream, people will eventually demand that VR be used in every courtroom.

1. Witmer, B. G., & Singer, M. J. (1998). Measuring presence in virtual environments: A presence questionnaire. Presence: Teleoperators and virtual environments, 7(3), 225-240.


VRARA Criminal Justice Committee Presents at IAFSM

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Atlanta, Georgia – VRARA Criminal Justice Committee (CJC) recently presented two sessions at the 4th Annual International Educational Conference held at the Hyatt Regency Downtown Atlanta (October 31, 2017- November 3, 2017).  The theme of this year’s conference was titled “Principled Data: From Crime Scene to Court”.  The International Association of Forensic & Security Metrology aka “IAFSM” comprises experts from a wide variety of backgrounds including law enforcement, military, engineering investigations, accident reconstruction and security professionals whose common element is the use and/or development of high-precision metrological systems.

Virtual Reality received a lot of attention this year in addition to presentations on cutting edge equipment, techniques and case studies to conclude a very successful event. Committee member and IAFSM Past-President, Eugene Liscio of ai2-3D stated, “I am very pleased with this year’s conference and the response from our meeting attendees on the use of VR/AR in the Criminal Justice system.  I believe most attendees saw a large potential for VR during the investigative process”.  

For information on the committee or future events, please email us at: info@thevrara.com.

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FactualVR Principal and VRARA CJC Co-chair Eduardo Neeter covering current and future applications of Virtual Reality for Crime Scene Investigation.

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VRARA CJC Co-chair Rory Wells, Esq. presenting on legal obstacles for VR to overcome before acceptance by the courts.  

Virtual Reality and its Impact on the Field of Criminal Justice

VRARA Criminal Justice Committee Seminar Pictured Left to Right: Eric Dustin of FARO, Rory Wells, Esq. of Ocean County Prosecutor’s Office, Ed Williams of FARO, Eduardo Neeter of FactualVR, Greg Schofield of Toronto Police Service

VRARA Criminal Justice Committee Seminar Pictured Left to Right: Eric Dustin of FARO, Rory Wells, Esq. of Ocean County Prosecutor’s Office, Ed Williams of FARO, Eduardo Neeter of FactualVR, Greg Schofield of Toronto Police Service

Jersey City, New Jersey – Multiple law enforcement agencies, academics, start-ups, non-profits and corporations from the United States and Canada met today in Jersey City for a first of its kind seminar and discussion on the impact of Virtual Reality and Augmented Reality on the Criminal Justice System.  

The Virtual Reality/Augmented Reality Association’s (VRARA) Criminal Justice Committee held its first event today on current and future applications of virtual reality technology, where an individual or group of individuals are immersed in a 3D experience using headsets or glasses.

The meeting covered demonstrations of the latest technology, including laser scanners and VR applications from event co-sponsors FARO Technologies and FactualVR whose developing technology allows to accurately replicate and communicate the facts around crime scenes to aid in investigations, preservation and future testimony in court.     

Co-Chairs of the committee, Assistant Prosecutor Rory Wells and Eduardo Neeter, Principal of FactualVR both addressed the attendees with valuable input.  The topics ranged from training and investigations, to the use of VR at trial and the use of VR for rehabilitation/reentry after serving time in prison.   

“It’s not a matter of “if” but “when” as the technology continues to develop and become mainstream, people will eventually demand that VR be used in every courtroom” stated Co-Chair Eduardo Neeter.

For information on the committee or future events, please email us at: info@thevrara.com.


VRARA Criminal Justice Committee Visits a School in Queens, NY to talk VR

Assistant Ocean County Prosecutor Rory Wells, Co-Chair of the VR/AR Association’s Criminal Justice Committee, had the opportunity to speak with students at the Irwin Altman Middle School 172 in Floral Park, NY on Thursday June 15, 2017.

School Media Specialist and Librarian Margaret Borger invited Rory to speak with students researching new technology.  The students were looking at how developing technology will continue to affect all areas of our life with one group choosing law and criminal justice as a focus.

Rory spoke on current topics in criminal justice and potential criminal applications for new technology such as virtual reality, augmented reality and the use of 360-degree cameras for investigations.

The student interaction was high with lots of questions and it was a great visit overall.  “We are at the point where advanced technology is organic to this coming generation, what they are starting with today, we only dreamed about.  The next three to five years will move at lightning speed”, says Assistant Prosecutor Rory Wells (Ocean County, NJ).

Can Virtual Reality Play a Role in the Area of Criminal Justice?

By Rory Wells

The arrival of new technology will always also bring new opportunities for nefarious behavior.   I am certain it was not long after the invention of the mass produced automobile, where we had our first vehicular homicide.  Similarly at some point after the invention of the telephone we were introduced to phone scams.  This behavior continues to persist because there are always people who succumb to these cons.  Some of us may have received a call (or even an email) from a far away “lawyer” or “banker” requesting a small fee or perhaps your social security number and a great inheritance will be sent your way.  Some of these crimes seem obvious now in hindsight; however the problem with new technology is that it is “new”.  We can’t always predict how some may use it to harm, steal or even kill another human being.

Like many of you reading this blog post I am very excited about the development of virtual reality/augmented reality and the incredible promise it holds.  Whether it be, gaming, shopping, recreation, education or communication, it is exciting to have a front row seat and watch this technology develop.  

Although courts have a resistance to new technology, or anything new for that matter, there are clearly opportunities for VR/AR to impact the criminal justice system.  We now have 360 degree video which could easily put a jury into the crime scene in a much more interactive way than merely looking at photos or regular video.  But I wonder what if we had a virtual experience supported by the latest brain research could assist a violent criminal break old habits and patterns by developing new neural connections.  This experience might help a violent offender change or control their behavior thereby assisting in rehabilitation and overall safety of others.  

Or perhaps a virtual reality program where one who is up for parole, voluntarily submits to a series of scenarios enabling us to see his or her choices played out.  Let’s say the individual is at his first job after release and we have a scenario where his new boss yells at him for breaking a dish, or he is walking down the street and various crimes of opportunity are presented in subtle ways.  These developments may lead us to a more definitive conclusion on whether to release an inmate on parole.    

Of course the technology can be used for the training of police officers as well.  This would include everything from community policing scenarios to hostage negotiations.  

With the development of new technologies there are always ethical questions that should be asked.  What are we doing, why are we doing it and should we be doing it at all?  Regarding these developing technologies and their applications to human behavior we should not ask; what is available and how can this help us?  We should ask what do we need and how can we create it?  

Rory Wells is a member of VRARA NYC Chapter and Co-Chair of the newly formed Criminal Justice Committee.  He is an Assistant Prosecutor with the Ocean County Prosecutor’s Office in Ocean County New Jersey.