The accuracy of crime scene investigations could be helped by a new Kiwi-made virtual reality tool.
The Institute of Environmental Science and Research (ESR) and Auckland-based virtual reality (VR) company Staples VR have developed a tool that allows trainee crime scene investigators to step into and interact with the scene, without being present.
ESR forensic research and development programme manager Dion Sheppard said before trainees are signed off to do their own forensic work, they need to be exposed to what investigators experience at the scene of a crime.
"Our alternative previously was to create the mock crime scene environment in a room or try to find a house we could use to set something up. But that's really slow, it takes a lot of effort to build it and then people have to go through it.
"But with the VR stuff you can create any scenario you want, build in the types of evidence you want people to experience and be trained in, and then create a testing environment within that as well."
By putting on a VR headset, the trainee would feel like they were standing in a crime scene.
The viewer can move around the scene and practise procedures followed by investigators such as collecting, photographing and documenting evidence. They can also practise handling evidence by using handheld controls to do things such as change gloves to avoid cross contamination.
The trainee's performance can then be reviewed.
"Crime scene examinations are really important. You've got a very dynamic environment, you've got a whole lot of unknowns and you have a lot of time pressure," said Sheppard.
"You need to be able to locate the right exhibits so you can examine them in a laboratory. You need a really quality examination of the scene so you get the most evidence and information out of it that helps feed into the direction of an investigation.
"The better the forensic science work at the scene is, the better our chances of having the right information presented at a trial is, so the right outcome is delivered."
Evidence collected - or not collected - at crime scenes has played a crucial role in several high profile cases in New Zealand including the Bain murders.
Sheppard said there were several advantages of using VR over mock crime scenes. These included the ability for trainees to use VR to step into real crime scenes, which have been recorded by ESR using 3D laser scanners.
Training components could also be delivered more easily and remotely.
"You don't necessarily have to go to the training college or to the [mock crime scene] to experience some of the training. You can sit at your desk or stand in your own room and be virtually there," said Sheppard.
ESR has been in talks with police about using VR training for their forensic staff.
A police spokesperson said although police were always looking to see what new initiatives and technologies were available, they had no plans to implement VR forensics training in the near future.
Staples VR producer Aliesha Staples said the unique aspect of the VR experiences the Auckland-based company has made is how realistic they look, meaning they can be used for fields like forensics.
She said the forensics training tool could be easily adapted, for other languages for example, so it can be sold into overseas markets.
Sheppard said VR could also be useful for visualising forensic investigation findings in court.
ESR has been capturing real crime scenes using 3D laser scanning for about five years. In some cases, these have been presented on a computer in court to help the likes of lawyers and juries better understand the scene of a crime.
Sheppard said the 3D data can be built into a VR environment, so a jury for example could go back and explore the crime scene as it was, but with all the results of the investigation and forensic testing embedded as well.
"It's really important for us when we have got a lot of forensic science to deliver, that we make that as accessible as possible. We want people to understand what the scene looked like, to understand the results and where they were."
Although Sheppard said it "would be quite a leap to imagine the jury being in headsets" and experiencing parts of the trial through the mechanism, it was definitely a possibility.