I am not a Trekkie. I do, however, have friends and family members who are, and they enjoy conversing endlessly about the many wild adventures they would have on the holodeck, the fictional virtual reality (VR) facility featured on Star Trek. The Trekkies in my life are delighted that VR — at least in the gaming world — will soon be advanced and available enough to make their sci-fi fantasies come to fruition. But while they have their fun, I am infinitely more interested in how virtual reality will revolutionize the practice of law.
Imagine a virtual courtroom able to transport the jury to a crime or accident scene. Attorneys will no longer be limited to using 2-dimensional exhibits or animated reenactments to prove their cases. Instead, we will make our arguments using VR. By virtually embedding jurors at the location where a person was struck and injured by a bus, they will become virtual eye-witnesses of the incident. VR could potentially enable attorneys to walk witnesses, jurors and judges through the scene, reenacting in real time the sights and sounds of the incident that occurred. There will be no need to approximate distances, size and descriptions of objects, people and events. They can be depicted in exact detail, thereby erasing the uncertainty that plagues eyewitness accounts of events at trial.
Practitioners could also use VR to take depositions remotely in ways that remove the barriers of time and distance, and using media far superior to current practices and technology that rely on phones, video-conferences and “real-time” transcripts. Rather than traveling across the U.S. or internationally to depose witnesses, attorneys and witnesses will meet in a space that virtually enables them to interact as though they were together in the same location. The use of VR for depositions offers tantalizing and substantially reductions in the overall costs of discovery, a subject of legitimate and vital importance to clients.
Despite the heady promises of VR, we will need to contain our excitement for the time being. There are several daunting hurdles that confront the use of this promising technology in the legal system. Some of these challenges are technical. Others are ethical. At the basic level, however, these challenges arise from the very nature of the legal system, which by design is resistant to change and radical innovation. There are a few important things that need to happen before this technology will be fully adopted by the stakeholders in the legal system.
First, the justice system is vast, bureaucratic, and slow to change. It will take time and effort to convince judges to allow the use of VR in courtrooms. It will take time to convince lawmakers to change the rules of civil procedure to adopt this technology, which really is a quantum step in the world of e-discovery.
Next, there is the initial barrier of costs. With devices that currently cost $600 apiece and the need for expensive and powerful computers to run the software, it will take time and money to establish the necessary infrastructure for this technology to be used on a widespread basis.
Another practical challenge is that some users have reportedly suffered from motion sickness when they wear VR goggles. There is also a concern that users may experience sensory over stimulation when exposed to VR, a situation that is potentially problematic for those with anxiety disorders, autism spectrum disorders, or other neurological conditions. These issues will need to be addressed before the judiciary will consider allowing VR into the courtroom.
Despite these challenges, practitioners in several professions are already using VR to dramatically improve the way they deliver services and information. For example, in the healthcare field a wide variety of beneficial applications are currently being explored. Optometry experts at UC Berkeley are conducting research on the use of VR to correct a condition called amblyopia, more commonly known as “lazy eye”. Surgeons at state-of-the-art hospitals are using VR to improve outcomes, such as determining optimal ways to locate tumors, place incisions, or practice the most technical or high-risk procedures. VR is also proving to be useful as a rehabilitation tool for patients who have suffered strokes and other types of severe brain injuries.
Outside of the healthcare industry, other viable applications exist, such as in space exploration, cultural and geographic experiences, educational opportunities, and mental health therapies. Just as in reality, the possibilities are endless.