Computer Animation in the Courtroom

Article excerpt

Seated comfortably in their chairs, several bystanders watch as a car winds along a two-lane highway passing through an expanse of rolling hills and approaches a gradual incline. As the vehicle reaches the top of the hill and begins its descent, a car traveling in the opposite lane turns directly in front of its path, intending to enter a driveway. However, the second car never even makes it to the driveway's outer edge: The two vehicles collide, each driver not aware of the other's existence until the last, fatal second.

However, the scene described above does not involve actual vehicles, or even a film of two cars colliding. Both vehicles, as well as the slate-colored highway, the verdant hills, and even the grey sky above, are computerized images that recreate as accurately as possible an actual accident. And the observers who watched the simulation unfold are members of a jury who are shown the computerized reenactment as an illustration of an expert's testimony as to how the accident actually occurred.

Whether a case involves accident reconstruction, medical procedures, environmental issues, or products liability, risk managers and attorneys are increasingly using computer simulations in the courtroom in an attempt to solidify their case. "Risk managers and their companies are finding that they can use computer simulations to show their side of the story to the jury," says Thomas Jenkins, of Ledford Legal Communications. "These simulations can also be used to convey to juries a simplified explanation of complex, technical subjects."As risk managers play a more active role in the litigation process, they will find computer simulations to be a persuasive courtroom tool that can help them win lawsuits or reach settlements out of court.

Defining Simulations

Computer sumilations involve combining software and engineering expertise to create computerized representations of objects interacting in space and time. By showing the spatial relationships of objects as they move through time, the computer engineer can create lifelike color renderings of these objects as they interact with each other. "Computer simulations are effective because studies by perceptual psychologists show that people retain information better when they view it in motion," says Mr. Jenkins.

When a client decides to use computer simulations in a case, the first step is to present the findings of an expert's investigation to the computer animation team, says Gary Huett, senior computer graphics engineer with Wolf Technical Services Inc. "The computer animator will require precise technical information upon which to base the simulations," he says. "Throughout this process, the expert and the client's attorney should be involved to ensure the technical accuracy of the images and their movement."

When creating the simulation, the animator's primary concern is ensuring that the motion of the figures is accurate and in accordance with the investigation's facts - not to mention the laws of physics. "The animator starts out with the raw data of the case-say, in the example of an accident, the physical characteristics of the vehicle, and every phase of its movement," says Mr. Huett. The animator then defines the object in space and uses software to create the vehicle's motion relative to all the other depicted objects. "Once the animator has created the motion of the image, and is satisfied that the motion is in accordance with the accident analysis data, the next step is to go into the rendering program," he says. "This program creates the detailed characteristics of the vehicle and the scenery."

Throughout this process, the animator creates a series of snapshots of the moving images in a sequence of 30 frames per second in order to portray fluid motion. …