Virtual Realities in the Courtroom

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Virtual Realities in the Courtroom

A man enters the Auschwitz concentration camp. After surveying the area, he finds the watchtower he is looking for. He climbs up the tower, eager to uncover the truth. From the top, he faces surveys the camp and discovers what he’s there to learn. Satisfied with the information he gains, he takes off his headset to record his findings. The man is a Bavarian Nazi hunter. He has just discovered crucial evidence that will be used to determine the innocence of a former Nazi.

In Bavaria, Germany, those who currently search for and prosecute Nazi war criminals use virtual simulations of concentration camps to evaluate the innocence of suspects. These simulations are created using “virtual reality” (VR) technology. VR typically consists of devices, such as a headset and body suits, that allow the user to “walk” and look around in an immersive three-dimensional environment. In this case, Nazi hunters in Bavaria use simulations of World War II Auschwitz concentration camps. VR has already begun to make its mark on the legal system, and it will only have an increasingly important role in society.

Virtual reality can play a vital part in various court settings, especially cases in which juries determine the outcome of a case. Currently, juries are often provided two-dimensional video footage and images, among other things, as evidence. Virtual reality adds another dimension by allowing jurors to immerse themselves in a particular crime scene. In addition to providing 3-D footage, virtual reality simulations provide jurors with the opportunity to “walk” and look around in the simulated environments as if they are actually there; body suits even incorporate other types of information that the user can experience such as temperature, wind, and gravity.

While virtual reality simulations often provide more information than 2-D video footage and images, the potential of manipulation remains a major issue. Those creating a simulation could easily incorporate certain elements that could influence the way a juror would perceive a given crime scene, such as altering the mood or obscure details. In an article written by Christopher Markou of the University of Cambridge, Markou argues that these effects are already found in current forms of evidence such as digital images. In VR simulations, the magnitude of these alterations would likely be much greater. For example, if jurors use VR simulations, they will feel as though they are actually in the setting. Therefore, if a simulation depicts a setting in a bias-inducing manner, the effects will impact jurors directly and leave more significant impressions than mere two-dimensional images. Because of this, it is imperative that regulations or standards are set in place so that there is as little room as possible for potentially bias-inducing information to be incorporated in simulations.

In a paper written by professors Bailenson, Blascovich, and Noveck of Stanford University, UC Santa Barbara, and NYU School of Law, the authors argue in favor of the use of VR simulations in court, believing these effects can be negated if both sides of a court case have full access to simulations. However, in this case, one cannot use the logic that two negatives equal a positive because two opposing forms of manipulation do not cancel each other out. If anything, manipulation by both sides of a case will only result in a simulation that is vastly unrepresentative of the actual scene it is intended to portray. A potential solution to this issue is the introduction of a third party in producing VR simulations. This would ensure the implementation of the VR software in an objective and impartial manner. Additionally, judges should be trained to recognize the validity of a given VR simulation, since even a third party could inadvertently create an unsatisfactory simulation.

There have already been several court cases in which virtual reality simulations have been accepted as evidence, the first being Stephenson v. Honda Motors Ltd. Of America. In this case, the court admitted the 3-D simulation into evidence because of its superiority to the 2-D videos and images available. It is important to note, however, that this simulation only consisted of a visual component and not the other features of modern virtual reality simulations such as sound and pressure. Though VR to the extent it has been developed has yet to make consistent appearances in court cases across the globe, court cases will soon begin to implement VR technology as a new form of evidence. Thus, it is important that courts adapt to presentations of VR simulations to jurors. However, courts should be careful to set regulations in place to ensure they do not present evidence in a bias-inducing manner.

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