Charles Steele, (Albert) Karl Larsen, and Daniel Suson are not professional crime scene investigators (CSIs), nor do they play them on TV. They are, however, professional educators with a great deal of collective expertise in forensic science and forensic science training; they help instruct crime scene investigators; and in collaboration with PNW’s Center for Innovation through Visualization and Simulation (CIVS), the three have produced and are “going public” with what may be the next generation in CSI training: an immersive, 3D virtual reality training environment and program, in which users must properly locate, identify, and collect evidence in a way that would be legally acceptable in the real world.
On Tuesday, June 26, 2018, professors Larsen (University of Illinois – Chicago) and Suson (Purdue University Northwest), Steele (PNW lecturer and adjunct instructor at UIC), and PNW administrators, faculty, and staff invited Post-Tribune reporter Rebecca (Becky) Jacobs and others to an official unveiling and demonstration of their virtual reality program.
“Crime scene training is usually done organically with staged evidence,” Steele said, “which is subject to real-world contamination from multiple possible sources—including those trying to document the crime scene. In addition, with real-world staged evidence, there’s often no central curation of evidence or level of continuity of evidence.”
“And that can be a serious problem,” Larsen added. “When you have someone new who’s just learning how to evaluate a crime scene, the first thing that’s going to happen is something is going to go wrong. They’re going to forget their gloves and leave a fingerprint behind that somebody else will find, or they’ll make other disturbances. But with a virtual training program, students can become experienced enough with the process to avoid contaminating a real crime scene where the evidence might end up in court.”
“Interactive, virtual reality training modules for forensic science allow for standardized and curatable crime scenes that remove the real-world contamination issue in training,” Steele continued. “The scenarios can be reset to their exact original state, so innumerable students can train on a particular process, but it’s also possible to change and manipulate things within a scenario—so there is flexibility.
“This is also meant to be financially accessible to any police department or school, and it’s designed to be able to pull in other professionals who can contribute their expertise, which thanks to the technology can then be widely disseminated. Too often there are valuable observations and bits of new knowledge that make it into journals but may not work their way into the field.
“This the first of what we’re hoping will be a very big project,” Steele summarized, “possibly up to 15 lab modules. We came in with a story, and a few ideas on how VR technology could provide an improved level of continuity of evidence and other advantages. We originally thought this would be our proof-of-concept piece, and CIVS,” Steele said, gesturing to CIVS Director Dr. Chenn Zhou and Senior Research Scientist John Moreland, “way overdelivered.”
“From an educational point of view, hands-on, interactive simulations are both immersive and engaging,” Zhou explained, “and the more engaged students are, the better they remember. Also, we can easily change scenarios and elements within a setting without much expense, so everything is manipulable, and capable of evolving.”
As he prepped PNW junior (and member of the Forensic Science club) Megan Gliva with a VR headset for demonstration to the group, Moreland provided a brief overview of the technology and the various uses to which the technology has been employed at CIVS.
“What we’re seeing onscreen is the environment the headset wearer is experiencing from the inside,” Moreland said. “Wearers can move around in and pick up and manipulate objects in the environment with a number of different control buttons or tools. Within this environment are both placards for marking pieces of evidence, and a ruler for showing measurement.
“This integration of computer simulation and visualization is the same technology we’ve used to create virtual blast furnace and other structural models that exist in the real world, and it’s all based on real data and measurements. We use real data to build scenarios, and we can also extract data to help optimize operations and design for innumerable processes.
“Press this button,” Moreland directed Gliva, “and you can turn on the UV light, or ‘blacklight,’ as an alternate light source for crime scene investigation—some pieces of evidence will show up more clearly, but then so will things that in the real world have optical whiteners in them. There are some built-in ‘distractors’ in these scenarios. Users can also set up screenshots to take photos as one would at an actual crime scene.”
Suson, Associate Dean of the College of Engineering and Sciences at PNW, emphasized the data-driven nature of the program: “Regardless of how the software and systems may develop, all scenarios and modules will continue to be ‘science first.’ We want students to gain a strong understanding or framework in the science of properly identifying, collecting, and processing physical evidence, so that the evidence is therefore usable within the criminal justice system.”
Steele and Moreland, complimentary to one another for their tremendous project efforts and respective expertise in forensic science and visualization technology, were also quick to credit the development assistance from computer science graduate students and CIVS members Komal Sharma and Abhishek Deb, and (former) CIVS Research Engineer Mike Hoerter.
The collaborative, 3D virtual reality training program for forensic science is also the subject of an article by Post-Tribune reporter Becky Jacobs, published on Tuesday, July 3, 2018. To read the article in its entirety, click on the link below:
Chicago Tribune/Post-Tribune article: Virtual crime scene gives hands-on training without risk