How VR is Used in Forensic Training and Crime Scene Reconstruction

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“The thing to remember about good VR scenarios is that while they can come off like video games, they aren’t. They’re data-driven scenarios. There isn’t a predetermined outcome or specific steps one must take.”Charles Steele, MS, Continuing Lecturer of Physical Science and Forensic Science Coordinator, Purdue University Northwest (PNW)

Forensic training is going virtual. The ability to recreate elaborate crime scene scenarios in virtual reality (VR) has opened up new forms of education for future forensics professionals. Purdue University Northwest (PNW) has already implemented cutting edge VR training developed at the University’s Center for Innovation through Visualization and Simulation (CIVS) and marketed by CBF Forensics.

The VR training program at PNW is the first of its kind, but it’s not the only one, and more are likely on their way. VR’s use in forensic training and crime scene reconstruction offers benefits in cost, standardization, and accessibility. As VR’s underlying technology improves, its applications to forensics will extend even further. Its advantages over traditional forms of forensic training may mean it becomes the new standard quickly.

To learn more, read on.

Meet the Expert: Charles A. Steele, MS

Charles A. Steele

Charles Steele is a continuing lecturer of physical science and forensic science coordinator at Purdue University Northwest (PNW). He teaches courses in forensics, chemistry, and physics, and mentors student research. Steele received both his BS in Physics and his MS in forensic science from the University of Illinois at Chicago.

Research is Steele’s driving motivation. At PNW, he has designed new methods for drug testing and worked with CIVS and UIC to develop a virtual reality crime scene. He is mentoring forensic students at both campuses in professional-level research in fingerprint detection, pattern evidence analysis, and drug testing. His personal research models how well jurors understand scientific evidence.

How VR Improves on Traditional Forensic Training

“Traditional crime scene education is a curated, staged event,” Steele says. “But it’s restricted by the ability of the teacher to know how to stage that event to look realistic. It lacks a national standard or even any oversight or guidance on how well it’s done. That’s where we got started, trying to get a standardization on crime scene processing training.”

Another issue with traditional crime scene training is that it’s not easy to reset the scenario for each individual student. As a result, it can become more observational than participatory education. Conversely, VR scenarios reset for each student and allow instructors to see and record their movements every step of the way. They also offer the opportunity for immersive and detailed customization.

“VR gives you the ability to curate the scene like you would normally, so you can put evidence in and take evidence out if you want,” Steele says. “But all of the evidence in our VR crime scene has a standalone laboratory component that can go back into the lab for the students to work on in the real world as well. That type of mixed media integration is where I think VR really has its strength.”

VR training also provides uniformity and accessibility: it requires little more than an Oculus headset and some software downloads, meaning institutions can acquire and run it more easily than setting up and taking down individual crime scene replicas. Training programs are also more easily updatable and as new technologies get incorporated, scenarios can become more sophisticated and specialized as needed.

The Benefits and Challenges of Using VR in Forensics Training

“The thing to remember about good VR scenarios is that while they can come off like video games, they aren’t,” Steele says. “They’re data-driven scenarios. There isn’t a predetermined outcome or specific steps one must take.”

In the early models of VR scenarios, programmers included more explicitly game-like functions: push a button, and a piece of evidence is put in a bag. But experts like Steele pointed out that in forensics training, every aspect of evidence collection—how the investigator bent down to inspect the area, how they picked something up, which type of bag they put it in, etc.—can be important.

Steele and his students use VR scenarios in forensics training that incorporate alternative light sources and placement tags. Students photograph what they’re looking at, and those photographs become part of a file for comparison. Footprints can be 3D modeled and used in class to match a type of footwear. The open-world style of the VR training mimics a real crime scene, while the game-like environment helps keep students engaged.

“It’s important that we view VR as a tool in our toolbox, but not the be all and end all,” Steele says. “We can’t lose sight of the fact that you still need a human teacher interacting with human students.”

VR training does face some challenges. If a user doesn’t focus correctly, they can experience nausea. And while VR headsets don’t have a steep learning curve, they still represent a foreign device to most Americans. Steele believes that this hurdle is part of what is preventing VR from being introduced in courtrooms for crime scene reconstruction—juries skew older and less tech-savvy than the average college student.

“It’s going to be a hard sell, and it’s a little bit down the line, but I do believe it’s coming,” Steele says.

The Future of VR in Forensics

VR is still young, but that youth is also a strength. As the underlying tech continues to evolve, so will VR’s applications in forensics and forensics training. One major leap forward would come from advances in high-speed data transport.

“Unlike video games that run well over Bluetooth, there’s a lot of data that comes out of a forensic scenario,” Steele says. “So we’re still cabled in, and the cabling becomes a leash. As data transfer technology gets better, these VR systems will become better and more operable.”

In the future, Steele sees two paths. In one, there’ll be a shift towards AR training. In the other, VR will incorporate additional elements like haptic sensors and tactile gloves. Both paths lead towards a similar destination: complex scenarios with intricate details that mimic work on an actual crime scene.

“Right now, we’re teaching people how to walk and what to look for,” Steele says. “The next stages are going to be teaching people how to actually touch and deal with evidence, and that’s going to require sensory input back. That is also going to dovetail into the instructor being able to see not just what the student did but actually feel what they felt. That’s coming.”


Matt Zbrog

Matt Zbrog is a writer and researcher from Southern California. Since 2018, he’s written extensively about the increasing digitization of investigations, the growing importance of forensic science, and emerging areas of investigative practice like open source intelligence (OSINT) and blockchain forensics. His writing and research are focused on learning from those who know the subject best, including leaders and subject matter specialists from the Association of Certified Fraud Examiners (ACFE) and the American Academy of Forensic Science (AAFS). As part of the Big Employers in Forensics series, Matt has conducted detailed interviews with forensic experts at the ATF, DEA, FBI, and NCIS.