The Making of a 360° Courthouse Familiarization Experience
Running through VSE’s advisory work is the consistent theme of safe justice; that is staff advocate for the means by which victims of crime can not only report a crime, but which also enable them to fully participate in all activities related to the judicial process.
A victim’s ability to participate in judicial proceedings often depends on their willingness to face the person accused of carrying out the crime in an open courtroom; answering questions put to them by lawyers working on behalf of the state and the accused. The physical act of providing testimony is stressful and can negatively impact those directly affected by the original crime.
To alleviate the emotional stress felt by victims, virtual reality (VR) experiences are being offered as a means of introducing them to the courthouse where the trial will take place and sensitizing them to the trial day events. Immersonal’s immersive familiarization experiences allows victims – and witnesses – to explore the courthouse from the safety of either their own home or in the presence of a victim support worker.
The VR headset and controls are similar to those used by online or Wii gamers and allow the user to enter and make their way around the courthouse. The user will be able to see the layout of the building, will learn where the courtrooms are, will see how the courtroom looks from the witness stand, and will learn (when necessary) what protection measures are in place to prevent interaction with the perpetrator; all leading to the user having a better understanding of what the courthouse looks like.
The familiarization programme allows the user to meet with and learn about the roles played by the various individuals working in the courthouse environment: victim support workers, security guards, lawyers working for the State and on behalf of the defender, and the judge or other official overseeing the proceedings. This will allow the user to better understand who they will interact with during their time in the courthouse, and how each individual fits within the court hierarchy.
To learn more about how the VR programme is constructed, VSE was given the opportunity to shadow Immersonal staff at a courthouse where they were filming on behalf of Victim Support Scotland (Immersonal & Victim Support Scotland project covered by BBC News).
It quickly became apparent that much detailed planning and preparation had gone on behind the scenes to ensure the filming would run smoothly. The project manager, herself an ex-victim support worker, had tapped into existing relationships with court staff and established new relationships with acting agencies across the country (filming is taking place in 52 courtrooms). These relationships ensured that court staff were aware of the day’s activities, promoting a positive environment for both the Immersonal team members and the actors.
While green screen scenes involving bona fide court officials had already been shot for use in each of the finished productions, work would now focus on filming the local courthouse and providing information on its facilities. The designated actors and extras were on site in good time, ahead of a day of role playing as court officers and members of the public.
The project manager’s previous work experience was invaluable in understanding the needs and fears of victims and witnesses; in understanding how the VR experience should clearly explain all aspects of the victim support and legal processes; and in creating a script that addressed the concerns felt by all those attending court for the first time. The project manager worked diligently with the actors and extras, explaining the background to each ‘scene’ and how they should comport themselves during the filming. She also had with her additional changes of clothing she could lend the actors, to mimic those of the court officials and promote a sense of authenticity.
The project manager and the video production manager worked seamlessly to manage their activities; to ensure filming was carried out during the agreed timeframe, even if it meant working around real time court work; and to deliver the production to head office for its final polish. Their equipment uses state-of-the-art technology which is easily transportable and provides amazing results: 360 cameras and mobile phones!
VSE learned much about the VR familiarization process during the day’s filming; however, it is apparent that while this experience brings many benefits, there are still some inherent issues to ensuring the provision of safe justice for all victims. If victims of crime are unable to safely report crimes carried out against them, if victims are not respected and recognized, if they are unable to access support and receive protection when needed, then no matter what innovations allow them to get to know the courtroom, they will never take their first steps on their journey to justice.