Filmmakers, video game designers and journalists are already incorporating virtual reality into their work, but another somewhat surprising group of professionals is also starting to use it: lawyers.
The immersive technology offers a way for members of a jury to look inside a crime scene or watch a simulation of an accident with a level of detail that photographs and witness testimonies can’t capture. Using VR, jurors can watch 3D reconstructions of an event or scene. Some versions even allow them to interact with the elements inside, picking up objects or examining a situation from different angles.
“We’re seeing large interactive displays where the whole crime scene may have been reconstructed in a virtual world,” Damian Schofield, a professor of human computer interaction at the State University of New York, explains in a recent episode of our podcast Codebreaker. Schofield believes virtual reality for the legal world is a growing business and predicts we’ll soon see more of it in a trial setting.
Because of its potential for the legal field, researchers and legal scholars around the world are investigating VR’s courtroom applications. In December 2014, a team of researchers at the Institute of Forensic Medicine at the University of Zurich in Switzerland published a paper about the use of the Oculus Rift to examine 3D computer reconstructionsof events or crimes. And a project at Staffordshire University in England has been experimenting with similar VR applications that could change how crime scenes are documented and shown to jurors.
But using virtual reality in the courtroom is not a completely new concept — the first VR-like experience was actually first used in a case nearly 25 years ago. The 1992 lawsuit, Stevenson v. Honda, was about the safety of a motorcycle, with riders suing Honda after an accident.
Honda recreated the scene of the accident from the point of view of the rider, showing the rough terrain beneath the wheels and the speed at which he was traveling. The jury wound up siding with Honda, agreeing that the driver was going too fast for the conditions.
This, of course, presents an obvious problem about using VR in a courtroom: depending on how the video or scene is designed, it can easily present a one-sided narrative, thereby giving the jury a biased perspective.
“Imagine recreating a murder scene. I could show you that murder scene from the perspective of the victim, or I could show you that murder scene from the perspective of the killer. And whichever way you see it is going to give you a completely different perspective of that crime,” Schofield tells Codebreaker host Ben Johnson.
That means whichever side of the trial can afford to pay for the VR technology — which is priced pretty prohibitively — might have a better shot at winning. Schofield acknowledges, however, that wealthier parties already have an advantage in court, since they can afford better attorneys, graphics, and expert witnesses.
But a technology that helps to provide more information about a crime or controversial incident could nonetheless have a positive impact on our justice system.