AR/VR Technology: Where We’ve Been, Where We’re Going

Augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) technology is not entirely new—the first personal headset was developed in 1968. The technology has continued to develop, driven both by gaming and entertainment, as well as scientific and military applications. In 1992, a virtual, remote operating system was developed for the Air Force. The system included a functional upper body exoskeleton for controlling virtually guided machinery. The late 1990s saw the addition of the now-familiar yellow field marker overlaid on televised NFL games.

More recently, we have seen the introduction of exciting new consumer headsets, geared toward gaming and other virtual experiences, such as 360-degree video. Using the headsets with the connected headphones and controllers is a full-body visual, auditory and sensory experience. With investment in AR/VR technology surpassing $1 billion in 2016, we can expect a phase of rapid development in the next several years. These developments will provide lawyers will new tools and opportunities.

Current popular headsets include the Microsoft Hololens, Oculus Rift (owned by Facebook), and HTC Vive. The Oculus, Vive, and Hololens are still cost-prohibitive for many consumers; the headsets alone can range from $500 to close to $1,000, not including associated software and other accessories. But more affordable and accessible options are coming to market. Examples include a variety of headsets for use with VR-compatible cell phones, many for less than $100. These cheaper options are fun, easy to use, and, as development continues, will help bridge the gap between the entry-level novelty VR experiences and the richer and more capable high-end tools.

AR/VR Applications in Daily Practice

For lawyers, the technologies can offer significant opportunities. For example, affordable and user-friendly hardware and applications will not only promote adoption of the technology in general, but will greatly increase access to justice within the practice areas typically focused on underserved populations. Rural communities, for example, could benefit from a central local resource where individuals could access AR technology for free as a way to confer with counsel in a bigger city.

Medical-legal examinations and site inspections could become easier to attend and participate in with AR technology. An attorney or other party participant could freely walk around the site of an industrial accident, for example, from a remote location, viewing the machinery up close and liaising with an expert who can display the collected data directly overlaid on the scene.

An in-house compliance team could use AR/VR technology to create immersive training and safety programs for teams located around the world.

As discussed below, future innovations could include integrated “smart” glasses that would incorporate data retrieval (briefs, research) and voice recognition, as well as mixed reality, capabilities that could greatly enhance a lawyer’s effectiveness, advocacy, and powers of persuasion in litigation and a variety of other settings. More affordable and accessible AR and VR tools will enhance lawyers’ ability and desire to use this technology in everyday practice.

In the meantime, lawyers and other legal professionals interested in AR/VR technology should seek out opportunities to become involved. From casual meetup groups to organized on-site training programs, ways to begin learning about the technology and testing it out are plentiful.

If you have never tried virtual reality, something new in the Seattle area is a drop-in spot where VR enthusiasts and newcomers alike can rent a room by the hour to play around with the latest headsets and virtual experiences. For lawyers who are ready to dive deeper, accelerated learning programs, workshops and “bootcamps” are available where tech enthusiasts of varying experience levels are learning to code and design in AR/VR environments.

The Future AR and VR in the Courtroom and Litigation

AR and VR are also primed to become a major communication tool of savvy litigators in the very near future. AR and VR will soon be combined with easy-to-use wearables. This combination will create major litigation educational and communication tools that lawyers will need to master.

At present, the use of AR and VR by litigators is limited by two things. First and perhaps foremost, sophisticated use of AR and VR now require large, clumsy viewing devices like the Oculus Rift. Getting a court to allow jurors to use these devices is unlikely and would be off-putting to most people (other than perhaps AR and VR fans). Less-sophisticated use requires screens that nullify the advantages of the technology; flat photos or videos that are simplistically animated with arrows or blow ups to try to make a point are a far cry from truly effective and persuasive use of AR and VR.

Second, even if you could convince a court to allow the use of headsets, the view afforded by current technologies are limited, since the viewer must remain stationary. What you can see is limited to how far you can turn your head.

However, these limitations may be soon be overcome once and for all. Robert Scoble, futurist and tech evangelist, recently offered a fascinating discussion of mixed AR and VR and what these technologies may soon portend for us. According to Scoble, we are only “two clicks of Moore’s law” away from having very standard-looking, ordinary glasses—not an over the head viewer – that can combine AR and VR (which Scoble and others call “mixed reality”).

In addition to ease of wear and use, these glasses will eliminate the need to stay still to use them. How: this technology will sense where real objects are, enabling virtual objects to be placed around and close to actual objects where there are empty spaces or where the wearer directs. The use of a mixture of AR and VR then becomes much more effective and user-friendly.

What does this mean for litigators? Imagine jurors, without wearing clunky glasses or even leaving the courtroom, being able to see in the courtroom virtual objects, scenes and other physical evidence that are the subject of the case. The lawyers, witnesses, and even jurors could manipulate objects, walk around them and get a much more realistic feel for them. Mixed reality would allow lawyers and experts to combine the real and the demonstrative in new and inventive ways. Judges and juries could see and visualize how things happen and work, other lawyers can see firsthand what another business or process is like and what the other side’s client actually experiences day to day.

Years ago, I tried a multi-death fire case for the defense. The deaths occurred in a small room as the result of numerous safety violations by the building owner, a non-party. Mixed reality would have allowed me to place the jurors in the room to see how small it was. It would have allowed me to show them the numerous safety violations, and then show how easy it would have been to correct them and the impact of that correction. A narrow stairway that provided the only means of exit from the room could, through mixed reality, be transformed into the proper-sized stairway, giving the jurors a real sense of the impact of the change.

Another example: several years ago, I had a series of construction defect cases involving a single product used in a number of buildings. The actual problem was one of moisture migration and assembly, and integration with other products. This was complicated to explain and show with ordinary technology. But with mixed reality, I could have taken the jurors inside the construction details and assembly. I could have placed them in the actual moisture movement. Instead of physical models, I could use virtual models that could be manipulated, moved, turned and examined.

Or imagine taking jurors to the scene of an event without ever leaving the courtroom, a scene they could walk through and around. Or a “day in the life” demonstration that places jurors in the room with the plaintiff in a virtual way. Or an expert showing how an allegedly defective product sitting in the courtroom through VR/AR could be made non-defective right in front of jurors’ eyes. Or in a medical malpractice case, taking the jurors virtually inside a medical procedure to see and experience it. The possibilities for bringing to life physical objects with mixed reality tools are endless.

And use is not limited to the courtroom. The technology could be used in depositions, in mediations, in anything and everything where getting close to objects and manipulating them would be instructional, in any setting where we as lawyers are trying to communicate and educate. And that includes ourselves; a product liability lawyer, for example, could examine an allegedly defective product made by his client at a remote site, and pull up all the instructions and relevant documents on his glasses while there. We could even conduct site inspections from our offices.

Of course, battles must be fought to get this type of evidence in front of juries. But the same was true of video evidence at one time. The same was true of computer modelling. Most admissibility issues boil down to whether the proffered evidence is what it purports to be and accurately shows what it’s intended to show. With mixed reality, that’s certainly achievable with introductory lay and sometimes expert evidence to educate the court on the technologies involved. Convincing the court to allow the use of glasses and even freeing jurors from the jury box to see and experience mixed reality evidence will, initially, be a challenge. But because the educational and persuasive value of the technologies will be so overwhelming, its value will outweigh reluctance.

Lawyers are in the business of communication, persuasion and storytelling. We have long realized that demonstrative materials, pictures and other visuals have a powerful impact on our ability to persuade others, whether  they are jurors, judges or other lawyers. Wearables like glasses with mixed reality capabilities will have a tremendous impact on communication and persuasion, and will perhaps revolutionize communication by lawyers even more than using video and photographs. It will enable others — and us — to experience realities in new and forceful ways.

To be effective in the future, we must learn to use this technology. We will also need to learn how to use AR and VR to tell stories to those with whom we wish to communicate and persuade. Just as storytelling is different in books as it is in movies, so to it will be different in mixed reality.

We are not there yet. But if Scoble is right, we soon will be. Like many technologies, once mixed reality becomes mainstream, lawyers, clients and, of course, fact finders will soon expect to be educated and persuaded with just this sort of evidence. It will become mainstream and part of our everyday learning process. Just as PowerPoint quickly went from a novel to a standard (and some would say overused) communication tool, a lawyer not using AR and VR to communicate will in the future fail to meet the audience’s expectations.

Perhaps the best evidence of the power of AR and VR: imagine if you will that instead of me describing what glasses with mixed reality capabilities might do as I have here, I could show you and demo it for you on your glasses. And if you can’t imagine it, watch Bob Scoble’s keynote.

About the Authors

Stephen E. Embry is a member of Frost Brown Todd LLC in Louisville, KY, and is a member of the Law Practice Today Editorial Board. Jenna Wolfe is general counsel at Coding Dojo, a national coding bootcamp.

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