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Bour: Virtual reality for evidence presentation is coming

October 19, 2016

technology-bourYou may have seen a recent Samsung TV commercial where people are fitted with virtual reality headsets. As they watch a presentation, they squirm, jump and scream in amazement during the immersive experience. At the conclusion, each participant removes the goggles to reveal expressions of awe and wonder on their faces. We are never told what they witnessed. The pitch is one intended to leave the viewing audience with a curiosity about what the Samsung virtual reality experience has to offer. Well, that commercial did pique my curiosity. Could virtual reality be useful to attorneys?

I decided to purchase an inexpensive virtual reality headset to learn more. These devices are nothing more than a system that mounts your smartphone directly in front of your eyes. They contain adjustable lenses that allow you to bring two individual images (one for each eye) into proper focus and alignment. One of the most basic units is a device offered by Google called Cardboard. It has that name because it is literally constructed using plain corrugated cardboard. These types of units can be purchased for as little as $10, while the Samsung Gear VR headset from the commercial comes in at about $100. There is a wide range of headsets to choose from within this price range.

Full 360-degree VR offers more than a simple big-screen movie effect. With your headset in place, you are able to look in every direction, all around the scene. This is possible because of the motion-sensing and positioning technology within the smartphone. It tracks the movement of your head, allowing you to look up, down, left, right and behind you. This is defined as a 360-degree spherical view.

You can get a feel for the concept even if you do not yet have a VR headset. Many videos are available on YouTube and from other sources that allow you to pan and tilt your view around a scene by manipulating your mouse. This type of presentation effect is similar to the look-around views you can see with Google Street View, but with a VR headset, the feel is much more dramatic. Turning your head to change your view is more realistic than dragging a mouse across a flat computer screen. The immersive nature of the experience gives the feel of a 3D-presentation, although I do not think that it is truly 3D. (By the way, VR headsets are a fun way to view actual 3D-movies, too).

Once you have a VR headset, there is plenty of content to explore. YouTube now promotes its 360° Video Channel, touted as “your destination for the most popular and compelling virtual reality videos.” For additional VR content, try the Cardboard app from Google and an app called Fulldive.

You might think that the cameras needed to record 360-degree VR video would be extremely expensive. I was pleased to learn that some of the simpler all-in-one 360-degree spherical cameras are affordable. One example is the Giroptic 360cam. It records in full HD and costs about $500. It automatically stitches together the views from all its camera lenses and provides a video that is immediately viewable and ready to upload to YouTube. Other cameras are as low as $300. Some of the more-involved systems use an array of six high-end GoPro action cams arranged in a special mount so the cameras point in all directions. Special editing software is required during post processing to stitch together the six views into one virtually seamless 360-degree presentation.

If you are curious about the concept of 360-degree VR, you can start by trying out some free apps on your smartphone that help you create 360-degree panoramic still photos that can be viewed with Google Cardboard or similar viewers. Check out an app called Cardboard Camera or another good one called Panorama 360.

I can certainly see the usefulness of technology like this for police body cams. Using 360-degree spherical VR cameras could present a video that depicts all threats from all angles and not just from a straight-on view. This could provide a much more complete understanding of a tense situation. Accident investigators and crime scene photographers could use such cameras to provide a virtual walk-through for jurors. I can imagine an entire jury fitted with VR headsets all examining the same photo or video but each able to look in the direction most important to them at that moment. The day will come when VR eyewear will become a standard presentation tool in most courtrooms, just as large screen HD monitors are a standard presentation tool today.•

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Stephen Bour (bourtech@iquest.net) is an engineer and legal technology consultant in Indianapolis. His company, the Alliance for Litigation Support Inc., includes Bour Technical Services and Alliance Court Reporting. Areas of service include legal videography, tape analysis, document scanning to CD and courtroom presentation support. The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author.

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