Flickr/wikileakstruck, Wikimedia Commons/Paethon, Laura Bliss

Immersive virtual reality could shake up jurors and judges across the globe.

Immersive virtual reality and its ground-shaking potential was the belle of the ball at South by Southwest's "Interactive" portion, which wrapped up Tuesday. Virtual reality (VR) headsets like the Oculus Rift fascinated and delighted festival-goers, with promises of changing the very landscapes of film, travel, journalism, and of course gaming—where VR's journey into mainstream discourse began with the Oculus' 2012 Kickstarter.

But there's another area that the Oculus Rift—or whatever immersive VR headset gets commercialized first—is likely to enter: The courtroom. (And no, we don't mean the current patent lawsuit against the Oculus Rift's makers.) It might not sound sexy, but the implications could be pretty big.

Last December, researchers at the Institute of Forensic Medicine at the University of Zurich, Switzerland published a paper and video examining the use the Oculus Rift to explore 3D computer reconstructions of events and crime scenes discussed at trials. It would be a new form of "illustrative aid"—like the photos, videos, charts, maps, medical records, and chalkboard diagrams that jurors and judges are usually presented with over the course of a trial to understand the evidence in a case.

"Usually, [when you're trying to determine what happened], the questions are 3D questions: Could this person really have seen this other person? Where did this bullet fly from? What was impact angle of the car?" says Lars Ebert, the lead Swiss researcher. "These are 3D questions, but the evidence and reconstruction of the evidence is usually presented in 2D, on paper or screens. It always comes with loss of information, which makes it difficult to assess what actually happened."

When people can step into a life-like reconstruction of a crime scene, the details are more precise, says Ebert. They don't have to imagine what happened. It's easier to understand the details of the case—and maybe even to empathize.

Indeed, Ebert's research, the wearer is immersed into the scene of the crime or accident, allowing a nearly 360-degree view. A turn of the head shifts the viewer's perspective, and an optical tracker aligns her real-world position within the virtual environment. Below, see a short video of a crime scene (from an actual case) that Ebert and his team reconstructed to test the headset's efficacy.

How, you might be wondering, does such a literal reconstruction of a crime avoid crazy amounts of bias? In this Swiss reconstruction, all of the visual information comes from security camera footage from the real scene of the crime, combined with laser-scanned measurements of the room. The virtual environment is not based, in any way, on the accounts of witnesses—it's purely quantitative.

That's partly because in Switzerland, it's up to state attorneys and judges to do the fact-finding, not to plaintiffs and defendants. Ebert's VR reconstructions, then, would be shown to the state only, and would only attempt to show the "pure" facts of the case. Subconscious biases could still enter in, but not in the way that they would in a U.S. trial, where the judicial system relies on more subjective representations of fact.

Carrie Leonetti, an associate professor of constitutional law, criminal procedure, and evidence at the University of Oregon School of Law, studies the impact of emerging technology on U.S. trial procedure. She's worked with the Stanford-based VR pioneer Jeremy Bailenson on courtroom use of immersive VR. "I think these things are inevitable," she says. "I think there will eventually be a tipping point between VR being this awe-inspiring thing and it being something like a PowerPoint."

In the U.S., either the plaintiff or defendant would hire a professional VR developer to reconstruct a scene or event to to use in their arguments, which they'd then present to the jury using a headset. In this case, these reconstructions could certainly be based on witness or expert witness testimony, and would therefore reflect the bias of one side or the other.

"Both sides might have one that they show to the jury," Leonetti says, "Imagine a trial where somebody is charged with homicide, and their defense is self defense. Each side would have a virtual environment that would look really different."

But as long as each virtual environment was consistent with what each side was saying, it would be admitted as an accurate view of testimony.

People try out the Oculus Rift at the Tokyo Game Show September 18, 2014. (REUTERS/Yuya Shino)

Leonetti thinks we're most likely to see the Oculus Rift and the like first emerge in the U.S. in the context of civil trials, partly because civil lawyers can pass the expense on to their client. In the cash-strapped criminal justice system, that's not possible, since at this point, the technology remains prohibitively expensive.

"Criminal defendants will be the last people who can afford them," says Leonetti. "But just like with DVD players, VCRs, or Blue Rays, there will be a price point. That's the way technology works."

It'll be a while before judges start admitting VR headsets into court, even in the cases where the parties are able to afford them. Judges tend to be conservative when it comes to new forms of technology. "The first time anyone wanted to use a photograph or a video in court, there was an argument about it," says Leonetti.

But once judges acquiesce, Leonetti thinks the implications are significant. "You can make a crime scene that actually looks like the scene," she says, pointing to the judicial mechanism known as a "view," where jurors are permitted to travel to the scene of the crime. "The problem with that is, it can be a year later, and the scene looks nothing like it did." But with a virtual environment, objects and tire marks can be exactly as they were.

In that case, the virtual environment might better represent a crime than reality itself—or at least, the way a person says it happened.

Thanks to Damian Schofield and Fred Lederer for their insight.

Top image courtesy of Flickr via Flickr/wikileakstruck and Wikimedia Commons/Paethon.

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