Why are police departments investing thousands of dollars in this sort of technology in the first place? For years, investigators worked from sketches, photographs and scale models to solve crimes. Why bring virtual environments into the process?
The most important reason is that investigators can preserve a facsimile of the crime scene indefinitely. Some crime scenes are in areas that receive a lot of public traffic and can't be cordoned off for an extended length of time -- the crimes scene clean up crew must return the scene to its normal state. By creating a virtual copy of the scene, investigators can revisit it whenever they want without inconveniencing anyone.
The applications for virtual environments in crime investigations include:
- Data visualization - investigators can visually represent data in a virtual environment in ways that are impractical or impossible in a real one. In a shooting case, for example, an investigator can enter in data about the bullet's trajectory and path and see it plotted within the virtual reality. This can help the investigator visualize the position of the attacker.
- Hypothesis formation and testing - virtual environments provide an easy way for investigators to create and test theories. Investigators can examine ways a criminal might have entered or left a room or the pathway of a struggle. Some virtual-environment programs have additional animation software. With the right personnel at the computer, investigators can create entire scenarios of how the crime might have progressed.
- Witness statements - virtual environments provide investigators a quick and easy way to check statements from witnesses, or even help witnesses remember a crime. An investigator can check to see if a witness's account is even possible. He can view the virtual crime scene from the point where the witness says he was standing to see if elements like the line of sight match up with the witness' account. In another application, an investigator might allow a witness to explore a virtual crime scene to see if it helps him remember any more details about the crime itself.
- Briefings - when working with a team of investigators, a virtual environment helps team members coordinate and explore the crime scene together. The investigator controlling the point of view can lead a group analysis of the crime scene, soliciting theories and suggestions from his team without having to go off site to the actual scene of the crime.
- Training - Preprogrammed scenarios are excellent training tools. Trainees can examine a virtual crime scene, formulate theories and collect evidence.
- Evidence in court - investigators use virtual environments to take a jury on a virtual tour of a crime scene, effectively illustrating their perception of how the accused committed the crime. The tool makes it much easier for juries to understand the relationship between the crime, the evidence found at the scene and the probable sequence of events. Some lawyers and computer experts worry that a jury might be swayed by poorly created virtual environments and that it's possible that the prosecution could misrepresent the actual sequence of events.
As companies develop user-friendly applications, we'll likely see police use VR technology more often. Several forces have expressed interest in using the technology to explore cold cases, possibly leading to an arrest decades after the initial crime. Many others are already using the technology to share investigation results with officers from different forces.
To learn more about virtual crime scene investigation and related topics, check out the links on the next page.