Vince Zamora placed an evidence marker on the floor of a bathroom in a retirement home.
Someone had stolen a painting from a resident’s room, and Zamora’s job was to examine and collect the evidence from the scene.
But as Zamora placed his marker, it accidentally nudged a small ball sitting under the sink, causing it to roll away.
“Oops!” the group of people watching him called out.
Zamora took off his virtual reality headset and returned to the room of observers at the Center for Innovation through Visualization & Simulation, or CIVS, on the Purdue University Northwest campus in Hammond.
Zamora and Megan Gliva, both students, were two of the first to try and out and demonstrate the new educational tool last week that simulates a virtual crime scene. The software was created as part of a collaboration between CIVS, Purdue University Northwest and the University of Illinois at Chicago.
“It’s a good place to learn,” Albert Karl Larsen, director of graduate studies for forensic sciences at UIC, said. “It’s a good place to experience a little bit of critique if you did something wrong, compliment if you did something right.”
The simulation allows hands-on experience and training without contaminating an actual crime scene that would end up as evidence in court, he said.
“When you have a new individual who’s learning, the first thing that’s going to happen is something is going to go wrong,” Larsen said. “They’re going to forget their gloves and they’re going to leave a fingerprint behind somebody else will find.”
Zamora and Gliva each wore a headset that covered their eyes as they held two controllers, which allowed them to interact with the screen. As they walked around the room in CIVS they simultaneously moved around the crime scene.
Instructors can track their movement and point out what they may have missed, Charles Steele, a forensic lecturer at Purdue University Northwest and adjunct researcher at UIC, said. As Zamora placed a placard, Steele told Zamora to look down at a footprint left on the tiled floor.
A large TV screen showed each step Gliva made at the crime scene from her point of view. She looked around the bedroom with the painting missing from a wall. In the bathroom, Gliva put a ruler next to a scrap of paper and took a screenshot of it. She used ultraviolet light to look for anything she may have missed.
“It’s actually pretty amazing because sitting in a classroom going through steps that you go do at a crime scene and learning it versus being in the virtual reality of it and actually doing it is completely different,” Gliva said.
About a dozen scenarios are currently available through the software, which was created over the past year by students, Steele said.
“It was my first VR project,” Komal Sharma, a graduate student who worked on the project, said. “I learned about forensic science. I never had experience in that.”
The scenarios are manipulatible so that even if a student has done one before, there is still something new to learn, CIVS Director Chenn Zhou said. The possibilities “are literally endless,” Kenneth Halford, director of the college of engineering, math and sciences, said.
“The instructor can still go and move this piece of evidence, take this away, hide this one,” Steele said.
The virtual crime scene simulations will be available to classes this fall on campus, but “now we want to go public,” Steele said.
“What we’re looking to do here is provide training that’s accessible, financially accessible, to any police department, any school that would want to use it,” Steele said.
All those organizations would have to do is purchase the software and virtual reality gear, and they could use it as much as they want, Steele said.
“There’s a lot of places that do the 3D simulations and immersive environment stuff,” Steele said, as it’s become more prevalent in video games and in trainings.
With this CIVS collaboration, the goal is to make the simulation based on real world simulations to better train people who will go out in the field, Zhou said.
“It’s not just a simulation. It’s a simulation based on the science,” Steele said.
After collecting all their evidence, Gliva and Zamora went upstairs at the university to a lab. Wearing gloves and protective goggles, Zamora sprayed a scrap of paper believed to be from the painting to check for fingerprints. This process allows students to bridge a connection from the scene to the lab, Steele said.
“Being able to test evidence that you collected yourself through that simulation is definitely different,” Zamora said.
In the future, they hope to expand the program to include more scenarios that are based in the forensic sciences, Daniel Suson, associate dean of the college of engineering, math and sciences, said. He imagines it could be used for ballistics and blood splatter, among other specialties.
No matter how the software and system develops, Suson stressed that in each case, “it’s science first.”