Officers are dispatched to a scene of a reported domestic violence incident taking place in the driveway of a local residence. They arrive to the incident amid darkness and blowing snow to find three combative subjects, with two claiming the third is holding a weapon. Using nothing more than verbal de-escalation tactics are able to leave the scene with one in custody for illegal possession of a firearm.
The incident ended peacefully but was surprisingly stressful given the history of relatively innocuous calls to that location in the recent past. The officers were left with the stark reminder that what you got last time might not be what you get the next time.
Then they did something unusual.
They removed the odd-looking headsets they were wearing, and were immediately back in the training center, surrounded by a half dozen other cops in an otherwise empty room.
The scenario was in virtual reality (VR), the latest tool in police officer training being adopted by many agencies across the country.
A Growing Market
There are already a handful of companies offering VR or AR (augmented reality) training simulator technologies on the market and more are sure to enter the market in the coming months and years.
In May 2021 Axon announced its Virtual Reality Simulation Training system, which the company says “will provide immersive virtual reality content that can help officers develop critical thinking, de-escalation and tactical skills.”
MILO Range—a longtime leader in interactive simulation training, curriculum, range design, and equipment—doesn’t currently do law enforcement training in AR/VR, but is developing some alternative ideas about use-of-force training in the VR space to present to law enforcement and military customers sometime down the road.
A new entry into the market is Wrap Technologies, which first became known to law enforcement as the maker of the first ever “remote handcuffs” called the BolaWrap. The company recently unveiled its WRAP Reality virtual reality training system, “a fully immersive training simulator and comprehensive public safety training platform, providing first responders with the discipline and practice in methods of de-escalation, conflict resolution, and use-of-force to better perform in the field.”
What are the principal problems virtual reality and augmented reality simulator training help to resolve? What problems might this new technology introduce? Where (and how) does this new technology take law enforcement in the future?
Let’s examine these questions one at a time.
Old Problems Solved
Two of the biggest impediments police agencies face when it comes to conducting in-service training are the relative dearth of time and space. Getting to the square range and setting it up for a day of live-fire training takes time. Setting up reality-based training (RBT)—replete with role players and marking rounds (Simunitions) and safety officers and secure locations—can become prohibitively cumbersome and costly, and for many smaller agencies RBT is simply not a reality (pun very much intended).
“The VR-DT (Virtual Reality–Decisions & Tactics) from InVeris increases the access to simulated or real-to-life training,” says Curry Newton, director of law enforcement virtual sales for InVeris Training Solutions. “VR-DT provides the environment, actors, weapons, and real-world pressures with the click of a mouse.”
VirTra CEO and Chairman Bob Ferris says that the equipment used in VR training can help resolve the challenge of securing a location to conduct your training. “Headsets introduce the opportunity to reduce the size and weight of a training system, which is particularly valuable if you don’t want trainees to come to a central facility where training is supervised by instructors,” heexplains.
Oliver Noteware, founder and CEO of Street Smarts VR, says virtual reality training “replicates the physical, emotional, and psychological stressors of the real world through cutting-edge graphics, an incredible breadth of content, and empowering the training instructors.”
Noteware adds, “Our VR solution allows officers to physically move—to take cover, peek behind corners, and investigate the virtual environment—which builds positive muscle memory.
Ti Training Vice President Todd R. Brown says that even virtual reality training has its limits and that augmented reality—a combination of computer generated and real-world—training will continue to evolve. “Augmented Reality Training can enhance training with a variety of repeatable, realistic stimuli while maintaining a connection to the real world, which is where our officers work and live,” Brown says.
New Problems Created
One of the greatest hazards in any manner of training is the inadvertent creation of “training scars”—unwanted residue from attempting to intentionally replicate in a safe environment something that is totally inherently unsafe in the “real world.”
Some obvious sources of training scars are inconsistencies with how a training scenario looks and feels compared with a real-life incident—movement, use of cover, ambient noise (or lack thereof in any of these examples) can have a harmful effect on the trainee.
As VR training and AR training become more prevalent in law enforcement, other training scars may become apparent. For example, given the fact that many officers—in particular, younger individuals just now entering the ranks—are familiar with VR in the video gaming realm, how can law enforcement instructors ensure that the training scenarios are taken seriously?
Newton says that InVeris takes the matter of mistaking training for gaming—and vice versa—very seriously.
“Virtual reality began in the gaming industry, but for training purposes, the InVeris VR-DT is not gamified,” Newton says. “Our graphics are photo realistic, and the scenarios come from the real world. We often watch officers become so immersed in the scenario, they begin to exhibit signs of increased adrenaline. They begin sweating, yelling and in some cases, even running. Virtual reality tricks the mind and creates the illusion that the call to service is real, regardless of how many years an officer has served. A use-of-force instructor would use the VR-DT to train, ensuring the trainee is selecting and using the proper level of force under pressure.”
Noteware points out that one of the steps Street Smarts VR has taken is to partner with the Advanced Law Enforcement Rapid Response (ALERRT) Center at Texas State University—which provides some of the best research-based active shooter response training in the nation—to study VR’s efficacy as a training tool.
“The team—led by Dr. Hunter Martaindale—tracked participants’ biometric stress markers when going through both their live shoot house and the Street Smarts VR replica of the shoot house.” The result, according to Noteware, was that “VR is proven to elicit a similar stress response to in-person role playing with professional actors at a fraction of the cost.”
Another challenge with VR training is the lack of human realism.
Ferris says that during training—just like in the real world—officers rely on very subtle emotional and body language cues that often precede an attack, threat, sorrow, fear, anger, or otheraction.
“It is impossible to have realistic empathy when on-screen characters look like video game characters,” Ferris says. “In today’s climate, this is an unacceptable training scar—creating an aversion to the characters due to the ‘uncanny valley’ effect where characters look ‘creepy’ and non-human, reinforcing separation between the officer and the suspect.”
Ti Training’s Brown says that while they are related technologies, the differences between VR and AR provide for vastly different training platforms. It is Brown’s contention that AR is the better of the two platforms, and it should be noted that his company offers an AR option for its simulators.
“In a VR environment, the entire world is contained within the headset,” Brown says. “In order to provide for the possibility of movement, the environment must be graphic based. This means all of the training is done in an alternate graphic reality (gaming). By contrast, AR allows for complete freedom of movement with visual and kinesthetic connection to the real world where our officers work.”
An Evolving Ecosystem
When taken into the grand scheme of law enforcement training history, it wasn’t particularly long ago that use-of-force simulators made their way into widespread use. The first instances were little more than film—actual film, in an actual reel-to-reel film projector—cast on a flat screen in a darkened classroom cleared of its desks and chairs. Officers in some cases had to yell “bang!” to simulate the firing of a weapon.
People laugh now—they laughed then, too—at how “low-tech” the “new” technology was. But it quickly developed into truly compelling products and services that are now commonplace in the law enforcement training ecosystem.
Those systems today are widely accepted for their worth, and it’s abundantly clear that VR training and AR training are simply the next step down an ever-expanding pathway leading toward the desired destination of improved officer training.
The technology is developing quickly, but it’s certainly nowhere near as developed as it can—or will—be down the road.
VR training and AR training can be effective for a variety of training scenarios, but there are presently a variety of obvious limitations—some of which will surely be overcome in time—such as basic firearms fundamentals, marksmanship, and group movement. Further, this technology is suboptimal for human interaction (de-escalation) training—for that you need real people in convincing role-playing scenarios. Finally, VR and AR are totally inappropriate—and always will be—for everything an officer is required to do in a matt room or on a challenge course.
There’s also the very real—and as yet unresolved—problem of “VR sickness,” which can bring training to an abrupt halt for anyone suffering from it. Caused by the cognitive disconnect when the eyes, the inner ear and other senses that register gravity and acceleration perceive movement or motion but the body remains relatively still, this malady can result in severe dizziness, nausea, vomiting, and confusion. Some have likened it to the very worst possible version of motion sickness they’ve ever experienced and describe it as “pure misery.”
Training requirements will continue to change based on the demands placed on police by members of the communities they serve—as well as those of the elected leaders and members of the watchful media—and training solutions will necessarily mirror those exigencies.
VR and AR simulator training will become another piece in the larger puzzle of police training. These technologies will deliver enhanced realism and greater immersion with each new generation of products. Headset devices will get smaller and more comfortable. Graphics within the scenarios will become more life-like and realistic.
Software developers may one day follow instructions carefully laid out by psychologists and criminologists in order to more closely simulate in VR and AR the behavior of criminals in real life. Instructors may one day work with experts in things like filmmaking and cinematography in order to make training more realistic.
Who knows? The possibilities are practically limitless.
It is plainly evident that VR and AR technology will find an important place in the overall training landscape already occupied by lectures in classrooms, in-service and roll-call reminders, force-on-force scenarios, and live-fire square-range drills.
Doug Wyllie Is contributing web editor for POLICE.