Building a Platform for CSI Learning Through Virtual Reality
Written by A. Karl Larsen, John Moreland, and Charles Steele   

CRIME BY THE FIVES is the next generation in crime scene investigation training, created to meet the evolving needs of law enforcement. The system integrates the ease and economics of virtual environment training with real-world laboratory instruction. By bringing together the expertise of forensic science faculty at Purdue University Northwest (PNW) and the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC), along with state-of-the-art simulation design from the Center for Innovation through Visualization and Simulation (CIVS), our team has produced scalable education content suitable for all levels of users.

Training for crime scene investigators has taken place in many formats. Some practitioners have been instructed by investigators who have more experience and help educate through “on-the-job” training. One negative aspect to this type of training is that if the novice investigator were to make a mistake of some kind, it could very well have an adverse effect on the entire case and result in the investigator having bad experiences into the future. There can be no room for an inadvertent loss of evidence, contamination of evidence, or loss of chain of custody—all of which could happen with training in this manner.

Some investigators may have had occasion to attend training where staged crime scenes have been set up in advance. This allows the ability to evaluate crime scenes of different types while learning about available investigation techniques. Such training is time consuming and can be expensive.

Formal training opportunities from professional societies are also an option. These vary from specific techniques which may be used in crime scene processing, such as “Collection of Footwear and Tire Impressions in Snow” or “Fluorescence Detection of Blood Impressions with Acid Yellow,” presented by the National Institute of Justice, to more comprehensive sessions, such as the ten-day “Advanced Forensic Techniques in Crime Scene Investigations II” presented by the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center (FLETC). These and other courses provide investigators with the knowledge necessary to complete their assigned tasks and, in some cases, provide experience to go along with the theoretical aspects.

Professional organizations, like the National Forensic Science Technology Center (NFSTC), provide a wealth of background material for the new investigator gained through years of compilation and research. NFSTC also provides on-site training as well as information for the novice investigator and can assist in more advanced techniques for the experienced crime scene investigator who wants to expand their knowledge. They are somewhat unique in the method of teaching, with supporting background materials for the investigators to carry home for future reference.

In addition to industry-based training, there is also a rash of courses offered by online universities that offer training to gain certificates, associate’s degrees, and even bachelor’s degrees. These typically lack any type of real-world experience with the intricacies of crime scene processing, and they do little to pass on insight into the analysis that must follow collection of the evidence.

None of these options are cost effective, reusable, and practical training experiences that can take an investigator into a crime scene, let them independently equip themselves, assess the scene, process the scene, and then review their actions later. Although some of this will be done, it is usually after initial training and under the direct supervision of a journeyman-level investigator. That is not to say current training methods are flawed. They are used in many aspects of industry and science. The “watch one, do one, teach one” philosophy has worked for generations.

However, times do change. In the climate of law enforcement and forensic work today, errors cannot be tolerated, and training needs to be economically accessible. We need a venue for training new investigators that allows them to make mistakes, learn from them, and go through a scene without the fear that a case will be lost due to a technicality, loss of chain of custody, improper documentation of the scene, or contamination. That is where a new paradigm, like virtual-reality (VR) environments, needs to be considered in training the crime scene technicians of the future.

Virtual Reality for Education and Training

The framework structure of a virtual environment.

The use of virtual-reality technologies in training and education can be traced as far back as the 1960s—farther, if early NASA and civilian aerospace flight simulators are included. However, during this era, constraints in expense, technology, and expertise often limited VR applications to particular research and development sectors.

In recent decades, advances in processing power have allowed widespread development and commercialization of fully interactive, computer-generated 3D immersive environments. The gaming industry, for example, is generally acknowledged to have topped the $100-billion-earnings mark in 2017. VR applications in education, training, and research have undergone similar, if less hyped, growth. And virtual-reality training and simulation tools have spurred research and development in educational training programs such as teaching measures in steel manufacturing and construction industry environments; “serious games” for fire and rescue services; and training for skills as diverse as welding and laparoscopic cholecystectomy (surgery).

At the forefront of both VR training development and finding innovative uses for simulation and visualization technologies is Purdue University Northwest’s Center for Innovation through Visualization and Simulation (CIVS), located in northwest Indiana. Founded in 2009, the multidisciplinary research center is known for its ability to use computer simulation and visualization technologies to create virtual versions of real-world systems, which can then be applied for design, optimization, troubleshooting, education/training, and overall problem-solving purposes.

Among the major research-and-development areas at CIVS is Virtual Learning and Training, based on the modeling of actual physical environments and situations with real-world measurements and other data. Integration of simulation, 3D visualization, and VR technologies allows reconfigured data to be “seen” and communicated effectively—to optimize processes, for instance, or to build educational and training scenarios.

CIVS has developed a number of Virtual Learning and Training environments for industry to educate and train employees in complex processes and phenomena, safety procedures, and emergency response. Applications have included development of the following:

• The world’s first “Virtual Blast Furnace,” used by the steel industry for employee training

• 3D emergency simulations for instructing hospital staff and personnel

• Mixed-reality simulators for wind-energy education and training (for example, for wind-turbine technician training)

• OSHA-compliant procedural training for workers performing potentially hazardous lockout/tagout tasks or faced with hazardous situations such as arc flash

CIVS has also developed Virtual Laboratories for teaching in universities and K-12 education. These have been used by civil engineering students to visualize groundwater contamination; by physics and astronomy students to enhance understanding of the solar system and cosmology through the NASA/ESA Planck Mission; and for many other educational applications including the study of chemistry, construction, protein structure, the ocean, and the brain.

Applying the VR Technology to Crime Scene Training

PNW forensic science student Megan Gilva uses Crime by the Fives for the first time.

Evaluations of these virtual learning modules have shown positive impacts on student education, motivation, and employee training. Building off of these successes, we are able to produce a new form of crime scene education that meets the needs of modern law enforcement. In the words of Kenneth C. Holford, dean of the College of Engineering and Sciences at PNW, “The technologies developed in CIVS have revolutionized the way that we look at and analyze complex real-world scenarios. Collaborative researchers from UIC and PNW have been able to use these technologies to develop something truly innovative, and potentially transformative, for both trainees and practitioners in the field of forensic investigation.”

Crime by the Fives follows the same methodology as other successful virtual reality training programs. Items are governed by real physics. Users can navigate their surroundings, interact with various elements, and virtually “experience” the consequences of their actions.

How often has a trainee in a mock crime scene contaminated or actually destroyed the evidence? Obviously, it happens all the time. Inexperienced students will make mistakes. Unfortunately, it is not practical to keep redressing a simulated crime scene until the student gets it right. With Crime by the Fives, this is no longer an issue. The configuration can be re-set or manipulated as needed for desired learning outcomes.

Take it a step further: How many times has someone at a crime scene stepped on a piece of evidence they didn’t see, or bumped into something they shouldn’t have? Would additional practice have prevented the accident? Virtual-reality training can be reused as needed until proficiency is achieved.

Arguably, initial inspection and movement are two of the most critical skills for anyone connected to crime scene investigations. As is so often said, there is only one chance to get it right. If the evidence is destroyed, or simply not found, it is lost to the investigation.

Crime by the Fives stresses these skills. The name itself is an acronym describing both the form (Forensic Investigation Virtual Environment Scenarios) and philosophy (Focus, Inspect, Verify, Examine, Show) of the system. The product offers needed flexibility to law enforcement. Large spaces do not need to be “dressed’ for training. This system can therefore be used almost anywhere a computer can be set up. The scenario can also be used over and over to provide refresher training as desired.

The form of the product allows for efficiently teaching first responders how to move through and quickly inspect a crime scene. Items in the scenario are programed to move like things do in the real world. Accidently bump into the evidence and it will be knocked out of position, possibly impacting other items.

Screenshot of a bedroom in a nursing home, one of the virtual environments used by students in Crime by the Fives.

The philosophy of crime scene analysis is reinforced in the science and construction of the scenario itself. The evidence in the virtual crime scene can be rearranged, allowing the instructor to tailor the content to specific educational intent. Visual properties of the items of the scene have been carefully designed to emulate the real world. Evidence with a visual difference of DE < 1.0 relative to background has been included. Such visual difference is below the casual visual threshold and requires careful inspection to see. In addition, the simulation features the use of an alternate light source and a virtual camera to capture the scene.

While the student is in the scenario, the instructor can monitor their actions by watching their progress on a computer monitor that shows what the student is seeing. The instructor therefore can know exactly how the student looked around to provide meaningful feedback. The student’s session can even be recorded for review, or simply to allow the instructor to show the student exactly what they did right or wrong.

The instructor’s view of the bedroom-in-a-nursing-home virtual environment.

For example, students are to find a dusty shoeprint in the virtual scenario. The shoeprint is below the casual visual threshold; if they do not get down close to the ground and carefully inspect, they will likely not see the print and possibly walk on it. If the student misses the print and steps on it, the instructor has the option to stop and restart, or simply show the student after the fact what they missed. Either way, the simulation can be rerun, allowing the student a chance to move correctly. Eventually the print is seen. It can then be marked and photographed. The student then continues to search the scene.

Once the inspection and documentation of the virtual crime scene is complete, students can be brought into the laboratory where they can collect and process the same evidence. For example, a 3D-printed version of a shoe sole is available to reproduce the shoeprint in the student lab. This allows the student to truly experience all stages of the evidence collection and processing.

This screenshot shows a footprint on the bathroom floor in the virtual training environment.

With this approach, instructors can teach the various methods for collecting a dusty shoeprint. Methods can be compared to show the pros and cons of each method under the same conditions. As new methods are developed and presented in the literature, a foundation now exists for easy integration in training.

Crime by the Fives takes advantage of the latest technology in VR simulation to improve traditional crime scene investigation training. This training system is set to an established standard while still allowing educators to curate the scenario. The system integrates with classroom and laboratory training. Putting it all together, Crime by the Fives provides an efficient and accessible means of initial and refresher training for scientists, investigators, and first responders, raising the bar for crime scene education.

About the Authors

Dr. A. Karl Larsen holds a PhD in pharmacodynamics from the University of Illinois at Chicago. He has worked as a drug chemist, toxicologist, and laboratory director for the Illinois State Police. He has served as an inspector for ASCLD/LAB. He is a member of the Midwestern Association of Forensic Scientists and the American Academy of Forensic Sciences. Currently he is the Director of Graduate Studies in the Master of Science in Forensic Science program at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

John Moreland holds an M.S. in Technology from Purdue University. He authored and co-authored more than 40 peer reviewed papers and presentations and has directed the development of 3D virtual learning environments for academia and industry. He has led the applied visualization research for more than 100 projects totaling more than $17 million in funding. Currently he is a senior research scientist at Center for Innovation through Visualization and Simulation.

Charles Steele holds an M.S. in Forensic Science from the University of Illinois at Chicago. He has published research in multiple fields and has developed or contributed to the development of more than 1,300 products across several industries including CN-Yellow, the first colored sublimation polymer for fingerprint development, and the Axis Inversion Dyes for LDPE processing. He is a member of the International Association for Identification and the Society of Plastic Engineers. Currently he is the Forensic Science Coordinator for Purdue University Northwest.

This article appared in the Winter 2018 issue of Evidence Technology Magazine.
Click here to read the full issue.

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