Virtual Reality: The Future of Law Enforcement Training

Article excerpt

A late night police pursuit of a suspected drunk driver winds through abandoned city streets. The short vehicle chase ends in a warehouse district where the suspect abandons his vehicle and continues his flight on foot. Before backup arrives, the rookie patrol officer exits his vehicle and gives chase. A quick run along a loading dock ends at the open door to an apparently unoccupied building. The suspect stops, brandishes a revolver, and fires in the direction of the pursuing officer before disappearing into the building. The officer, shaken but uninjured, radios in his location and follows the suspect into the building.

Did the officer make a good decision? Probably not by most departments' standards. Whether the officer's decision proves right or wrong, the training gained from this experience is immeasurable, that is, provided the officer lives through it. Fortunately for this officer, the scenario occurred in a realistic, high-tech world called virtual reality, where training can have a real-life impact without the accompanying risk.

TRADITIONAL TRAINING LIMITATIONS

Experience may be the best teacher, but in real life, police officers may not get a chance to learn from their mistakes. To survive, they must receive training that prepares them for most situations they might encounter on the street. However, because many training programs emphasize repetition to produce desired behaviors, they may not achieve the intended results, especially after students leave the training environment. Thus, the more realistic the training, the greater the lessons learned.

Additionally, even some in law enforcement may fall prey to the effects of what has come to be termed "The MTV Generation."(1) As products of this generation, today's young officers purportedly have short attention spans requiring new, nontraditional training methods. The key to teaching this new breed is to provide fast-paced, attention-getting instruction that is clear, concise, and relevant.(2)

TRAINING WITH VIRTUAL REALITY

Virtual reality can provide the type of training that today's law enforcement officers need. By completely immersing the senses in a computer-generated environment, the artificial world becomes reality to users and greatly enhances their training experiences.

Although considerable research and development have been conducted in this field, only a limited amount has applied directly to law enforcement. The apparent reason simply is that, for the most part, law enforcement has not asked for it.

Because virtual reality technology is relatively new, most law enforcement administrators know little about it. They know even less about what it can do for their agencies. By understanding what virtual reality is, how it works, and how it can benefit them, law enforcement administrators can become involved in the development of this important new technology.

WHAT IS VIRTUAL REALITY?

Simply stated, virtual reality is high-tech illusion. It is a computer-generated, three-dimensional environment that engulfs the senses of sight, sound, and touch. Once entered, it becomes reality to the user.

Within this virtual world, users travel among, and interact with, objects that are wholly the products of a computer or representations of other participants in the same environment. The limits of this virtual environment depend on the sophistication and capabilities of the computer and the software that drives the system.

HOW DOES VIRTUAL REALITY WORK?

Based on data entered by programmers, computers create virtual environments by generating three-dimensional images. Users usually view these images through a head-mounted device, which can be a helmet, goggles, or other apparatus that restricts their vision to two small video monitors, one in front of each eye. Each monitor displays a slightly different view of the environment, which gives users a sense of depth.

Another device, called a position tracker, monitors users' physical positions and provides input to the computer. …