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Oculus Rift: Coming to a Courtroom Near You?

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By Mark Wilson, Esq. on April 01, 2015 12:58 PM

Oculus Rift is about as close as we've gotten so far to true virtual reality. It's a head-mounted device that creates an immersive VR experience. A user wearing the headset, for example, can turn his head and the application responds by moving the immersive environment.

Sounds pretty cool -- if it ever comes to fruition (we've been promised the device Real Soon Now for a few years). When immersive VR experiences like Oculus Rift do hit the consumer market, will they have an application in the court room?

Probative or Prejudicial?

They certainly could. Imagine a criminal trial where the geography of the room and the placement of the people involved is a critical component of the prosecution or defense theory. Or what about a car accident where the case hinges on understanding how a particular intersection is constructed?

Sure, you could show the jury maps and diagrams -- or you could show them the actual room itself, or the intersection itself, constructed in a VR environment by stitching together photographs. (We're assuming that, for some reason, going to the actual site isn't feasible, for some reason like inclement weather, infirm jurors, or location in another, distant venue.)

The technology to create such things already exists; all that remains is to use something like the Oculus Rift to display it to people. Of course, the problem with such an immersive environment is that it's too immersive. As my trial advocacy professor used to say, the problem with highly probative evidence is that it's often too probative. Courts choose not to allow field trips to the scene of the crime simply because the emotional effect of being there outweighs what a juror would get out of the trip; the layout of a room could be demonstrated with a chart.

VR devices also run the risk of literally allowing a juror to step into the victim's shoes, something that's rhetorically not permitted and can often result in an immediate mistrial. Imagine how prejudicial it would be for a juror to actually see what the victim was seeing, in the way the victim was seeing it, moments before he or she died.

Yeah, that probably wouldn't be allowed.

I'd Like to Call the Headset to the Stand

Actually, though, we don't have to wait to see how immersive VR would affect the courtroom. In December, researchers at the University of Zurich's Institute of Forensic Medicine examined Oculus Rift's ability to reconstruct crime scenes at trials. They noted that Oculus is good at recreating details with precision, but other experts correctly observe that, like witnesses' testimony, jurors will be presented different VR scenarios by the prosecution and the defense.

Plus, said Carrie Leonetti, a constitutional law professor at the University of Oregon School of Law, hiring experts to reconstruct crime scenes in virtual reality is expensive: "Criminal defendants will be the last people who can afford them."

Still, when Oculus does arrive at a jury box near you, rest assured, it will be more interesting than a PowerPoint presentation.

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