The Year of VR


(Feature image credit: Faye Orlove for Marketplace)

As 2016 draws to a close, I’m reflecting on a crush of breathless news coverage on the topic of Immersive Virtual Reality (VR). Most recently, I listened to an episode of the Marketplace Codebreaker Podcast, titled Alternate Reality, which included an excellent segment on VR in the courtroom. The five minute segment (starting at 08:12) features an interview with Damian Schofield, Professor at SUNY Oswego, who has served as an expert in virtual reality in many high-profile cases. This got me thinking about my own experience with VR and how it’s affected our legal work.

First, VR is already in the courtroom, and has been for some time, in the form of digital 3d visualization of crash and crime scenes. Stephenson vs Honda (1992) is widely cited as the first case to admit virtual reality evidence, as described in this article by Jeffrey Dunn. What’s new this year and seems to be driving all the breathless news coverage is the potential applications for immersive VR, using headsets such as the Oculus Rift.

However, just because it’s possible to bring this technology into a courtroom does not mean it’s always a good idea. Immersive VR environments can present an overwhelming amount of information, and it may be difficult for an attorney to lead jurors to a desired conclusion. At Fat Pencil Studio, we consider using VR to probe specific questions that cannot be addressed using simpler means.

For example:

My biggest concern about the hype surrounding VR is the implication that it is primarily a tool for the courtroom. In my experience, the real value derived from scene visualization comes when doing it early with the full team of attorneys, investigators, and expert witnesses. Being able to see a scene from different viewpoints and manipulate that perspective in real time is a powerful tool that can transform the way legal teams collaborate to prepare a case.

If you’d like to learn more, I recommend listening to an episode of the Kennedy-Mighell report on the Legal Talk Network. Virtual Reality Technology in the Courtroom highlights the differences between virtual reality and augmented reality, how they are used in gaming, entertainment, and reviews some specific courtroom applications.


Joshua Cohen is a Principal at Fat Pencil Studio