SOLVE magazine Issue 02 2021 | Page 34


Criminals open up to a VR show-and-tell

By following a burglar in action in real-time , researchers are shedding new light onto ‘ the criminal mind ‘ with life lessons for all .

Arguably the most intriguing

and gripping element of criminal investigations is crime scene reconstruction . Piecing together ‘ what happened ’ has held countless courtrooms spellbound since the dawn of the jury system ( reputedly in medieval England ) and is no doubt why this confluence of physical evidence and behavioural science is also so often at the core of fictional crime dramas . Human behaviour is endlessly fascinating .
Now there is a new medium into which the investigator can step – virtual reality ( VR ), which is opening up unprecedented opportunities for not just the forensic analysis of location , but also the mindset and real-time thinking of people in the act of committing a crime .
It is a tantalising new field of research developed by forensic psychologist Professor Claire Nee , Director of the University of Portsmouth ’ s International Centre for Research in Forensic Psychology .
Professor Nee ’ s expertise is burglary and she has pioneered the use of VR to get housebreakers to re-enact their crimes , so she can understand exactly how they act , think and feel as they go about committing their offence .
“ Rather than their motivations for committing crimes , I ’ m more interested in how they enact the crime , the hours and days building up to it , and the aftermath ,” she says . “ This hasn ’ t really been looked at before .”
Professor Nee says the information gathered by this research can be used to help catch offenders and also to educate householders and businesses about ways to better protect their properties and possessions . Importantly , she says it can also help the offenders who want to desist from crime by unearthing the habitual decision-making that an experienced criminal uses and often is unaware of .
The Virtual Burglary Project , led by Professor Nee and the Max Planck Institute in Freiburg , is a significant step forward from previous research , which used interviews to explore burglars ’ thinking . The limitation of using interviews is that the information gathered is inevitably coloured by memory flaws and memory misattribution . No matter how willing a burglar is to talk , inaccuracies creep in .
“ Sometimes what you think you did simply didn ’ t happen . There ’ s also the desire to not want to sound like a terrible person ,” says Professor Nee .
“ When virtual reality arrived , I thought it would be great for re-enacting crimes . It ’ s always better to watch behaviour , if you can , rather than interview people . VR discloses so much more information , because the person is actually re-doing the burglary .”
VR also removes the mental effort and distraction involved in having to recreate the context of a crime committed in the past , she says .
VR REVELATIONS VR technology produces richer , more detailed data and shows that offenders work fast , scoping their environment and rapidly picking up clues to make an instinctive decision about whether to proceed with a burglary .
“ Our first virtual burglary study taught us a huge amount about how a person scopes the environment ,” Professor
Nee says . “ We knew they avoid small children ’ s bedrooms , but we thought that was because there ’ s not much of monetary value in there . In fact , we discovered the real reason was it ’ s ‘ wrong ’ to go into a baby or a child ’ s bedroom – a moral code of sorts .”
The re-enactments have also shown how offenders go straight to the highvalue areas in homes – information that can be used to educate people on where not to put really valuable possessions .
“ We ' re learning from the offenders ,” says Professor Nee . “ Through them we can help people better appraise their environments , without making life inconvenient or increasing people ’ s fear of crime . Instead , if we can help people make their environments less inviting to a burglar , and also help them
Sometimes what you think you did simply didn ’ t happen . There ’ s also the desire to not want to sound like a terrible person .
– Claire Nee
ISSUE 02 / 2021