Forensic holodeck creates 3D crime scenes

ZURICH, SWITZERLAND - Star Trek’s virtual reality ‘holodeck’ has come a step closer to reality, thanks to researchers from the University of Zurich.

Led by researcher Lars Ebert, the team at the university’s Institute of Forensic Medicine, have created what they say is the first system in the world to visualize the 3D data of forensic scans. The team’s creation, called the Forensic Holodeck, could be used in criminal trials by offering accurate three-dimensional interpretations of CCTV footage. The team has already been called upon by Swiss prosecutors to help convict a gunman who fired at police in an internet cafe.

The system uses an Oculus Rift headset, in conjunction with an optical tracker called OptiTrack. A 3D scanner, Autodesk 3DS Max software, and Unity 3D gaming software help the team create their forensic reconstructions.

Radiologist Steffen Ross says the department’s other invention - the Virtobot - is already used to provide virtual autopsies of bodies, without the need to open them up.

“The first step would be to do the data acquisition which we use a 3D scanner for,” said Ross. “We scan the crime scene and we are also able to scan the dead body, if there is a dead body involved, and then we can put all the data together in the computer and create a virtual crime scene, which is a 3D model of the crime scene, so a re-enactment of the crime.”

Ross insists the Forensic Holodeck is unique. “It’s the first system ever used in the whole world to visualize the 3D data of forensic scans in this way, so nobody else ever did it before,” he told Reuters.

Creating a 3D immersive system to virtually transport judges, police officers, barristers, and potentially a jury inside a crime scene could be enormously beneficial, Ross believes. The system was used last year to help convict a suspect who fired a series of gunshots at officers in an internet cafe, one of which hit a policeman’s hand.

The scene had been recorded by a CCTV camera. This video footage allowed the 3D reconstruction of the scene and to pinpoint the trajectory of each shot, which could be seen inside the lenses of an Oculus Rift headset. The reconstruction showed just how close the bullet trajectories came to seriously injuring the officer. The gunman subsequently received an eleven year jail term for the shooting.

“The actual result we had is a case of a reconstruction of bullet trajectories. So we placed the people in the room and we were able to have a much better look at the trajectories of the projectiles, than we were able to see it in a two-dimensional manner,” explained Ross.

The Oculus Rift headset measures the wearer’s orientation in real time, allowing for calculation of the scene with the correct perspective.

Ross says forensic work is far from the only potential use of the holodeck. “The gaming industry is a real big area,” he said. “You get completely immersed into gaming scenes and you can interact with the right controller with the scene you are playing and also kind of rapid prototyping, so I think of automobile industry or something like that, where you want to see 3D structures, 3D models.”

Colleague Robert Breitbeck says their Virtobot system also has multiple uses. “We have our Virtobot system with an industrial scanner and with this equipment we can scan the skin with the pattern injury in color and true to scale so we can store it, and later we can combine it with 3D data which the police scans together with us and with this 3D data we have a basis we can do the 3D reconstructions or visualizations of murder cases or traffic accidents,” said Breitbeck.