Long ago we started drawing in caves whilst producing primitive sounds. Many thousands of years later we started to read and write to improve our communication. Not so much later on the timescale we came up with digital technologies like phones, TV’s, computers and a connecting invention; the internet. Communication got a new meaning. Just some decades later we created a key element in addition to screen-technologies: virtual reality. Those who have tried the current variants of virtual reality headgear know it’s a special type of technology. It’s an invention, which just like the smartphone revolution will be remembered as the start of a new technological and perhaps social era. The rise of virtual reality has just begun, but goes back several decades. Lack of funding and computing power prevented VR to rise in the beginning, until now. It has an incredible potential for modern society. There is no doubt about the massive purchase of VR headsets households and individuals, in the near future. This device is just like the PC, the TV and the smartphone might be the next one in line to be adopted by a large amount of people.

Applications of virtual reality
The power of virtual reality is found in the unique characteristics of the technology. A user who wears a complete headset (both glasses and earphones) is entirely isolated from his or her ‘normal perceptive world’. The senses sight and hearing are in a virtual reality, which is interpreted by the brain as such. An experiment that shows the intensity of the reality experience contains a set up in which people wear a full VR headset. An environment is created in which you stand on a cliff or platform high in the air. You can look around in every direction and experience your ‘dangerous situation’. A bit later you’re being asked to walk off the deadly cliff or platform by doing a step forward. People are often simply too scared to do this, despite the fact they rationally realise that nothing dangerous can happen to them. However, the emotions and instinct generated by the human brain actually prevents them to make this step.

Jeremy Bailenson is a professor in communications and founding director of the Virtual Human Interaction Lab at Stanford University. His lab is leading in VR technologies. Therefore he collaborated with many companies, researchers, institutions and state departments, like the US military department (of course). He did a TEDx presentation in which he explains some of his experiments and argues VR’s potential to change human behaviour. To have a good understanding of VR and its powerful capabilities a clear and comprehensive explanation is given in this video by Jeremy Bailenson himself:

The variety of applications can be enormous. For instance, experiments have been conducted on veterans who returned from warzones and suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder; impressive successes have been made in this field.(i) It will also be used for those with other psychological issues like anxiety or depression (people who are scared to go out on the street for instance).

With this introduction about the capability of VR in mind, we continue with an explorative research to the applications in the field of law and policy. A crucial element this technology offers is the capability of generating feelings of empathy. It allows us to let people experience different situations and contexts in a wide variety of subjective virtual realities. This feels so real that people actually change real life behaviour as a result of the created empathy, generated by the VR context. An interesting subjects is as follows: subjects who had to cut down two huge trees in a VR ‘forest’, resulted in reducing paper use by 20% when the subjects were asked to clean a water spill after the VR experience.(ii) Since such experiments can already lead to behavioural change regarding the use of paper towels, it can most definitely also be used for behavioural change related to the field of law and policy.

Punitive measures supported by (emotional) education
We all know that punitive measures mostly consist of imprisonment, community service and fines. However, we’ve also noticed the emergence of corrective training courses, which is increasingly applied by judges in cases considered suitable for this ‘educational’ punishment. For instance, people who drove under influence using alcohol or narcotics are often sentenced to such training in order to let convicts ‘gain insight’ and realise the possible (and hopefully avoided) consequences of their actions. Also anger management courses are more frequently allocated after violent incidents. The goal of punishing people is besides retribution, deterrence and justice also to make sure that the perpetrator will not continue in his behaviour after completion of the sentence. Preventing recidivism is a major goal of criminal codes and systems. The convict has to re-enter society and (try to) live like any other. How can VR help in this?

First, the VR technology can be used in new ways and for the improvement of current methods to teach the convict what consequences and impacts his actions (can) have, seen from different perspectives by simulating a comparative or similar situation in the VR context. It will be possible to simulate the subjective experience of the victim (to a certain extent) who suffered from for instance a car-accident, robbery, rape, violent attack, discrimination and so on. An important cause of the problem with for instance sexual offenders (SO’s) is the fact that they often lack empathy. They have (different from normal people) problems relating to the feelings of the victim and therefore commit more easily this horrible crime. A certain amount of sexual offenders clearly suffer from a troubled mind and have psychological issues that results to such crimes. Emotional intelligence and empathy have often insufficiently developed in the SO’s mind or is disturbed. VR can help to learn these minds to feel empathy and better understand the position and experiences of other human beings. It would therefore also be an excellent tool in the treatment of those who are subjected to the supervision of the state (TBS). This directly relates to psychiatric and psychological treatment of course, which is however part of our legal weaponry and therefore it should be considered from a policy perspective. Despite this statement I’m of course not implying that all sexual assaults have a common cause in solely the lack of empathy. Although, these criminals might have an improved understanding about what they’ve done to a victim and it might help to prevent repetition after their release.

Police training
Besides the benefits of treatment for convicts (and victims; like the PTSD soldiers) by using VR the justice department or police academy could use the technology for training and educational purposes for police officers. Many projects and trials have been launched to train police officers. An example could be a training to make better choices when it comes to the use of the fire weapon. Another example could be a simulation on how to react when a police officer is overwhelmed by many factors that require his attention; prioritising one problem above another. Also special units who are supposed to arrest a suspect in a specific area or building can benefit from this development by recreating the environment in which the operation has to be executed. Unexpected surprises may then become subject of control and training, causing improved results. Also responses on terroristic attacks can be simulated and trained.

Virtual reality in the courtroom
The last discussed application of VR is the use in courtrooms. Since the search for truth is being practiced in courtrooms, VR can provide in a more accurate reconstruction of events and facts being relevant for questions like guilt, reasonability, plausibility and intention in a particular case. Accurate models can be reconstructed using security camera footage, measurements of the crime scene and witness reports. Judging is extremely difficult in some cases, since uncertainty about specific issues (like position of the shooter, visibility, self-defense by burglary etc.) can obstruct or limit finding the correct facts and truths due to a lack of context. Indeed, judgments are hard to make when you were not actually there. VR can provide in a more detailed and personal experience for the one who has to judge. It can create context. On the other hand it might also cause unequal legal weight for parties, since a poor defendant might not be able to pay for production of a VR simulation that is showed in a courtroom. In the USA this might cause significant legal inequality, in cases where rich parties are able to pay for reconstruction in VR. These reconstructions might have serious compelling powers for judges and jury’s.(iii) Besides that, it’s never impossible that mistakes are being made by such a reconstruction of a crime at a particular crime scene. A mistake can have even deeper impact/consequences, since it’s implemented in a VR experience. As we’ve seen before VR experiences can have very persuasive and strong impacts on people’s emotions, feelings and judgments. Even as a judge. The negative side of this device must therefore be considered carefully.

In conclusion
It’s clear that VR has valuable additions to offer in the field of law (enforcement) and policy. Simulation of virtual reality’s can help to improve skills (i.e. in making choices) for state security personnel, resulting in better public service. It can create more detailed contexts in difficult or doubtful cases ensuring better judgments being made. Also, for those who suffer from troubled minds or those who have committed horrible crimes, psychological progress, realisations and awareness can be achieved resulting in perhaps less recidivism or illegal incidents. Keep in mind; this is just an explorative research bringing up some applications of VR in the near future. There is a lot left to explore, develop and research, but it has the power to bring wonderful results for sure.

(i) S. Rizzo is the project leader in the Braveheart project: virtual reality exposure therapy, conducted by the university of South-Carolina: Institute for creative technologies (since 2005).
(ii) Explained in this video:

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