Kenton Brice, the digital resource librarian at the Donald E. Pray Law Library, moves his hands while wearing a virtual reality headset Oct. 25. Using the headsets, students will be able to re-explore crime scenes
Virtual reality is changing criminal studies at the OU College of Law. Two white, custom-built virtual reality rigs sit together in the law library, where users can explore models and artifacts in a 3D space.
The rigs include Oculus Rift headsets with Leap Motion controllers, which model the user’s hands digitally, with built-in seating and a 3D mouse, accompanied with a large monitor to mirror what the user is seeing and doing — all powered by a custom-built Falcon Northwest computer.
The rigs are connected to six others across campus, digital resource librarian Kenton Brice said.
“We’re all plugged into the same system and it’s called OVAL (Oklahoma Virtual Academic Labs). Ours is basically just the newest one and, in my opinion, the nicest one out there,” he said.
Although the rigs were introduced to the library more than a month ago, he said, law students are not able to apply it to their studies yet. Brice said the professors, attorneys and students who have used it have only explored demonstrations so far.
“We’re still in the heavily experimental phase of this project,” he said. “Right now, the way it’s set up, students don’t have free, full-blown access to this. Right now what we’re doing is guided workshops, and that’s hit or miss because this is so new.”
Educationally, virtual reality is used in a variety of ways around campus. Anthropology, architecture and engineering each use it for their own purposes, he said.
As Brice places the headset over his eyes and ears, he waves his hands and points his fingers in front of him, using them to select models to explore. In virtual reality, Brice is flying around a replica of the Law Library, then changes to another model where he can view a skull, examining it from every angle.
“This is what engineers use with CAD system. Architectures use it in design — but it basically allows you to travel in the x, y and z axis of any space. It’s a sort of joystick for flying around in virtual space,” he said.
Brice said he would like to see the rigs used for modeling real-life crime scenes, where law students can gain insight on criminal actions or explore past crime scenes.
“We’re taking baby steps to get there,” Brice said. “One of the futures of virtual reality in the legal practice is modeling crime scenes, accident scenes, construction defect scenes to where now you can take a jury, lawyer, expert or anybody out to the crime scene without actually physically moving them from the courtroom.”
The computers were hand-picked by Brice in order to “future-proof” the rigs, he said.
“This was my baby,” Brice said. “We wanted to future-proof this project for the next two, three, four years, and so the better VR gets, the more processing power you (need).”
The software development has to catch up in the meantime, he said, but might take a while until a full-time developer is hired.
Brice said OVAL is comprised of certain librarians, part-time developers and other stakeholders in the project.
“We’re the ones coming up with ideas for future development,” he said.
Brice said the project is Helmerich Learning Center librarian Matt Cook’s brainchild.
Cook said the current software allows professors to show students relevant information for their classes and strips away everything else.
“If it’s a chemistry class; you can see things as they exist in 3D space and recognize patterns about those protein molecules, in this case, that you just don’t get from a page in a textbook — it’s flat, it’s 2D,” he said.
Cook said virtual reality can allow students to understand textbook concepts with more perspective.
“You can have data all the way around you, which just means more on-screen than any given time, that means you have more insights or discoveries about a data set, because you can look at more potential — you can get more perspective,” he said.
For criminal justice studies, Cook said students can re-explore crime scenes.
“You can do witness relocation, as if they were back at the scene of the crime, or the jury is reviewing evidence as if it were right there in front of them,” he said.
“Even blood-splatter analysis, you can walk through the scene of a crime and see which direction blood came to land,” Cook said.
Law student and library reference assistant Ahrens Kerwood said he has enjoyed using the rigs so far, which has been a unique experience.
“It takes a little while to get used to — it feels very real in a lot of senses, in how quickly you feel that you’re a part of it,” Kerwood said.
“I know a lot of people have actually come in and out and had a lot of motion sickness, so it does take an adjustment,” he said.
Kerwood said he has not yet applied the virtual reality to his legal studies.
“I’ve just been testing out the modeling system and what we have — making sure things work correctly. But from the times I have messed with it, I haven’t really had any problems,” he said.
“It’s one of those things that’s definitely in Beta-phase, but has a lot of potential,” Kerwood said.