UW-Madison is partnering with the Dane County Sheriff’s Office on a two-year, federally funded study to measure the effectiveness of virtual reality tools and 3-D-capture technology on crime scene investigations.
The study, paid for through a $265,000 Department of Justice grant, will focus on measuring evidence-gathering outcomes provided by traditional hand measurements compared with two of the more advanced 3-D methods.
“The goal is really to quantify what are the benefits, what are the savings in cost and time, and what are the barriers to wider use by law enforcement,” said assistant professor Kevin Ponto, principal research investigator for the study in the university’s Living Environments Laboratory.
The partnership with the sheriff’s office makes sense because deputies who do crime scene investigations became early adopters of the technology with the help of UW-Madison in 2014. That’s when the lab loaned out its LiDAR (Light Detection and Ranging)-powered, 3-D laser scanner, and the services of a lab worker to run it, to deputies investigating the fatal shooting of a 43-year-old woman in an upstairs bedroom of a large and cluttered old house in Mazomanie.
The university’s LiDAR scanner uses a combination of lasers and a camera to create detailed, three-dimensional models of entire physical environments. It’s a lunch box-sized device that sits on a tripod and slowly rotates to document a single room with typically one 10-minute scan, or captures the entire interior of a house by stitching several scans together using provided software.
The sheriff’s office was so impressed with the detail and quality of the resulting 3-D rendering of the Mazomanie scene, and with the ease and speed in which it was produced — by one person doing 37 scans over a period of several hours rather than by a team of people working for days with a tape measure, pencil and paper — that the office purchased its own handheld 3-D scanner in 2015.
It’s been used by the sheriff’s office some 35 times since then, Lt. Brian Hayes said, to investigate the scene of suspicious deaths, vehicle crashes and other incidents.
“Any major crime scene, we bring it to,” Hayes said. “Ideally, we’d like to get to the point where we’re able to put 3-D goggles on jury members and walk them through a crime scene that way.”
“We and the sheriff’s office are pretty sold on this approach,” Ponto said. “It has a possibility to really transform how crime scene investigation is done.”
But across law enforcement, 3-D technology hasn’t seen widespread adoption, due to issues such as cost, concerns about data manipulation and other challenges.
Resistance might be overcome, Ponto said, if the study can document hard evidence of the technology’s advantages compared with traditional methods, and creates guidelines for use and protections against misuse.
“By combining 3-D capture technology, computer reconstruction algorithms and virtual reality presentation mechanisms, scientists at (UW-Madison) believe they can improve accuracy and documentation, lower time and cost, reduce risks associated with this kind of investigation and enable new means of investigations,” staff said in a briefing document for County Board members who approved the transfer of $13,300 of the grant money from UW-Madison to the sheriff’s office to cover expected deputy overtime for the study in late March.
For the study, sheriff’s deputies plan to do measurements for sketches at 10 mock crime scenes using three methods at each — the university’s 3-D scanner, the handheld 3-D scanner and the traditional, low-tech approach with tape measure. The lab will then help analyze and quantify the outcomes of each approach, as well as run focus groups with lawyers, judges, officers and others to produce guidelines addressing procedural concerns.
The issue of cost may work itself out, Ponto said. A tripod-mounted scanner like UW-Madison’s can cost $50,000, with the handheld devices retailing around $17,000. That’s down a lot compared to 10 or 15 years ago, and prices could drop a more, Ponto said. “It may be very soon that our cellphones can do this type of data capture,” he said. “This price tag issue that you have right now may go away.”