Imagine twelve jurors sitting in the jury box, listening as the defense attorney presents them with imagery of a crime scene, showing various views of the scene and pointing out salient details.
But instead of viewing a projection or large prints, they are seeing the evidence through virtual reality goggles strapped to their heads.
This may happen sooner than you expect. Virtual reality (VR) refers to the display of imagery in such a way as to maximize the viewer’s sense of immersion in a scene. In common applications, this involves a head-mounted unit with stereoscopic displays for a 3D view. Data from head tracking sensors allow the user to look around freely, and the displays react accordingly in real time.
The images displayed can be computer-generated graphics or photographs taken with special cameras. They can depict real-world locations — past, present, or future — or imaginary settings. Virtual reality can portray objective fact as well as conflicting testimonies — placement or position of people, or vehicle speed — when objective determination of those factors is not possible.
In October 2016, it was reported that German prosecutors had developed a detailed computer recreation of the Auschwitz concentration camp and were using it to investigate some of the last remaining suspected Nazi war criminals. A common claim among these suspects is that their duty posts did not afford them a view of the atrocities being committed there, and so they should not be judged complicit.
The virtual Auschwitz, assembled from modern surveys and thousands of historical photographs, recreates even long-dead trees that could have prevented, say, a guard on a watchtower from being aware of crimes committed elsewhere in the camp. By donning VR goggles and virtually climbing the watchtower, investigators can see exactly what the suspect’s view would have been. These techniques have already contributed to the conviction of one SS guard and have advanced investigations into dozens more. This is only the beginning of the potential applications for VR in the legal industry.
VR-friendly crime scene documentation
Degradation of a crime scene and the evidence it contains commences immediately and continues indefinitely. Thus, one of the pillars of crime scene investigation is to capture in the greatest possible detail the nature of the scene at the time of initial inspection. Cutting-edge robotics and photography will combine to usher in the next phase of visual evidence.
Prototypes already exist for photographic robots that largely obviate human photographers at crime scenes. These robots are equipped with 360-degree cameras and intelligent positioning systems that allow them to roam semi-autonomously or under the control of a technician and ensure they capture every corner of a scene.
If you have ever used Street View on Google Maps, you have already seen imagery captured using similar technology. These images are easily viewed using an ordinary computer with a point-and-click interface. But they are just as well suited to viewing through a virtual reality headset. The difference is not in the content, but rather in the viewer’s level of immersion.
A better view
Jurors sometimes conduct a “view” where they visit the scene of the crime. The problem is, the conditions at the time of the view are not the same as they were at the time in question. This limits the benefit of the endeavor and can even bias the jury against one side or the other. Virtual reality can simulate not only the scene itself, but also historical conditions. This could be anything from the weather and light levels to the nature of the environment in cases where a long time has passed before trial. This particular application could eliminate the need to physically take the jury to the scene of the crime.
However, a technology closely related to virtual reality, called “augmented reality,” could make an actual view more useful. Imagine a jury attending a real-world viewing of the scene of a car accident. Each juror wears a pair of glasses whose lenses are actually transparent computer screens that overlay computer graphics onto their field of vision. AR could thus seamlessly combine a juror’s first-person view of a crime scene with details derived from testimony.
As the jurors look toward the intersection where the accident occurred, they see the plaintiff’s and defendant’s vehicles approach each other at intersecting paths and collide violently. The plaintiff’s attorney rewinds the simulation and replays it in slow motion, imploring the jurors to notice that his client had the right of way at the time of the accident, and the defendant should have yielded.
The scene is reset. Now the defendant gets to present their side of the story. Agreed-upon facts are portrayed similarly; facts at issue are different. This time, another vehicle is present. As the defense attorney points out, this vehicle blocks the defendant’s view of the plaintiff. While the defendant still violates the plaintiff’s right of way, the questions of negligence and the degree of liability are thrown into doubt.
Inevitable, yet unpredictable
Judges tend to be reluctant to permit new types of evidence into the courtroom. It is not difficult to imagine that early uses of photographic and video evidence were met with skepticism and argument.
Virtual reality in the courtroom may get off to a slow start, but will likely become at least as commonplace as computer-generated graphics, and perhaps even videos and photographs.
In the slightly more distant future, virtual reality seems likely to change not just the nature of evidence, but how we conduct trials. Virtual reality affords the user a virtual presence in a real or imagined place. High-speed networking allows interactions between users in far-flung locations. Courtrooms themselves could become virtual, reducing the expense and effort necessary to assemble judges, jury, and witnesses. They could all participate from their homes or offices. The implications for such applications are hard to fathom.
In the context of VR’s near-future effects on the legal system, it is important to recognize in virtual reality both its similarity to everyday evidence and its novelty. It is, after all, nothing other than a more realistic and immersive way to display photographs and computer graphics — evidence that is already commonplace. Cameras in widespread use today capture 360-degree, 3D imagery. And computer graphics are already able to portray an environment in striking detail. Virtual reality headsets are simply a more advanced display for those same images.
However, VR also represents a profoundly more impactful way of presenting evidence and testimony. To the extent that cases are decided on facts, VR may represent a clearer lens through which to view those facts. But as all attorneys know, interpretation, nuance and emotion are anything but absent from the minds of jurors. The greater advantage will fall, as it so often does, to those whose arguments, testimony and connection with jurors is more persuasive.