As explored previously in the IACFP Bulletin, virtual reality (or VR) has proven a beneficial tool for use in correctional settings, particularly for incarcerated individuals. A recent article by researchers in Germany, published in Criminal Justice and Behavior, Volume 2, Issue 50, offered a new application for VR: virtual reality training in criminal justice settings for personnel. Here, we provide a summary of their analysis on the potential areas and applications for an open-source training VR framework under development.
VR as Training Tool
"The ability to create immersive virtual environments is a valuable addition to common psychological and psychiatric research methods, assessment tools, and treatment possibilities in the forensic psychiatric field." For example, virtual reality exposure therapy, which allows participants to experience stimuli without physical risk from any location, has been used successfully with patients.
But what about the people who work with the patients? Extended reality (XR)-based training, which incorporates VR into the training experience and enables participants to engage with material that may be difficult to cover in a more traditional approach, was found to be as effective as traditional, non-VR techniques.
Students in medical and/or psychological clinical education programs work with human standardized patients (HSPs) to hone their skills before advancing to work with actual patients. In a similar vein, students and/or young professionals who are training in the fields of forensic psychology and criminal justice can benefit from working with virtual standardized patients (VSPs) to "practice their questioning technique and communication skills repeatedly with the help of virtual characters and avatars."
This approach is both more flexible and cost-effective, because training in these settings does not have to rely on the availability or preparatory training of professional actors. The system, scenarios, environment, etc. only need to be programmed once. Studies have shown that VSP-based conversational training techniques do not differ significantly from HSP-based, making it a viable option for the criminal justice system.
Applications within Criminal Justice
The authors posited the efficacy of XR-based training suggests a similar model could benefit professionals in the fields of forensic psychology and criminal justice. This is because a VR-based training model would afford trainees the opportunity to practice skills that are often required in high-risk, high-stress situations—without the possibility of their training-based scenarios or practice sessions to cause harm or put them at risk.
Some of the potential applications suggested by the authors as good avenues for VR-based training included:
- Assessing the risk of violent offenders by exposing them to potential situations, scenarios, or people that could trigger harmful behavior;
- Giving forensic staff the opportunity to practice effectively handling aggressive inpatients; and
- Training for interviewing and interpersonal skills that could be helpful for personnel required to interview witnesses, collect medical histories, provide mental health treatment, or create a forensic report within the criminal justice system.
To build upon VSP training research already conducted in medical school settings, the authors built "an open-source training framework for the criminal justice system."
The framework uses a chatbot-based system to "create realistic conversation experiences," along with a VR-based immersive environment wherein the conversations can take place. This empowers trainers and trainees to practice techniques in a wide variety of settings (e.g., courtroom, prison, interview room, etc.); however "VR-based training frameworks allow to train skills in a safe environment without endangering others in the case of mistakes by the trainee."
The framework was built following an open-source approach to remove the use of "proprietary software." It has five main components, described by the authors as:
"(a) a web server that functions as a data storage, serves the web frontend, is used as a data management tool, and provides web-based questionnaires and training feedback to trainees immediately after finishing a training trial; (b) an operator application used to organize the experiment to collect operator input and to manage the data transfer to the server; (3) a conversation engine (“CE”) that enables conversation using natural language between trainee and virtual characters; (4) a virtual environment, where trainees interact with virtual characters; and (5) a speech-to-text framework, to allow freely spoken questions."
The framework uses Ubuntu, a Linux-based server, for data management. "The high-level Python web framework Django is the basis for the operator frontend and provides the backend for data management. The DRF allows the usage of the database via web APIs."
The frontend user interface (UI) for training management was created with Bootstrap. Integrated feedback can identify "good" or "bad" response examples, provide hints if a trainee is stuck, and share an alert when a questionnaire needs to be filled out.
Permissions are set up by user roles, which are currently defined as:
"(a) administrators, who have the permission to export data, (b) training operators, who are allowed to create new trainees and training feedback, and (c) trainees, who are only allowed to enter questionnaires and view the training feedback."
Answers given by the VSP during training are created by ChatScript, a text-based dialogue management system. This "enables the training framework to produce adequate answers based on a predefined virtual character’s biography given the conversation’s context." Virtual environments were built using Unity, which is a game engine designed specifically for VR.
Use of the VSP Framework
The authors outlined multiple key benefits that come from the use of this open-source framework. These included:
- It can be used with trainees or professionals who work directly with patients and/or in the criminal justice system, so they can practice conversational skills, interviewing techniques, and more in a "safe environment" that feels realistic;
- Participants can make errors or missteps without fear of harm to self or others, enabling them to build confidence and mastery over time;
- Using this approach could "improve the standardization of conversation trainings as well as the level of realism concerning the similarity between the training scenario and real-world situations;" and
- The system has been set up for ease of use, so that those working in criminal justice can tailor the training to their needs by only having to focus "on the development of the content-related aspects of a training conversation context"—specifically the environment and virtual characters.
Although more data is needed to assess the usability of the framework – and use currently may be limited to only those who have adequate knowledge of programming – the framework has clear benefits and applications for the criminal justice system, including forensic psychology.
To access the full article describing the new framework, please visit: https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/00938548221124128?icid=int.sj-full-text.similar-articles.3
* References available upon request.