“The medium is the message,” said Canadian communication theorist Marshall McLuhan in his groundbreaking work in the field of media theory, “Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man.”
So, as a law enforcement professional, why should you care about a 60-year-old academic theory? McLuhan’s predictions about media, technology and culture are transforming the way law enforcement trains and responds to the challenges of the day.
McLuhan argued that the medium through which a message is conveyed plays a vital role in the way the message is received and understood, encompassing the view that technological and media advancements are not just tools, but extensions of our human senses and capabilities, fundamentally reshaping how we interact with the world and each other. The changes brought about by these extensions affect not just the content of communication but also our sensory experiences and perceptions of reality.
McLuhan’s ideas seem prescient now, as evidenced by how the advances in simulation and virtual reality technologies have transformed law enforcement’s ability to train for real-world situations in an impactful, safe, immersive environment.
HOW TRAINING GOT TO BE SO REALISTIC
“Training simulation has been in use by law enforcement for over 30 years, but it wasn’t until less than a decade ago that improvements were made to elevate to fully immersive virtual reality,” said Robert Bemis, director of training for Wrap Reality and a trainer for most of his 30 years as a sworn officer. “Advancements in that technology, such as the VR headset, have been tremendous in just that short amount of time that made it practical for use as a professional training tool and not just a gaming system.”
As is well known, simulation training can replicate high-intensity situations like an active shooter incident but in a safe environment where mistakes can be corrected. Training under manufactured stress helps build muscle memory and resiliency, honing officers’ decision-making skills so the officer will be prepared mentally, physically and emotionally should they find themselves in a similar situation in the real world.
While 2D projection video is still used successfully for law enforcement simulation training, fully immersive virtual reality training has plenty more advantages, especially when it comes to the degree of realism. “If I put you in a situation and you know you’re watching that scene unfold on a movie screen, if you look above the screen, what do you see? You see the training room ceiling,” said Bemis. “You never really leave the room. You never had that sense that you were really in that situation.”
Wrap Reality’s fully immersive VR setup includes a VR headset, a computer system that allows the trainer to choose the branching options based on the training goals and performance of the trainee, and deactivated training weapons with the weight, operation and feel of the real thing.
“What fully immersive VR does is, as a trainer, I can take you out of that training room and I could place you on the side of a highway. I could place you in a back alley at 3 a.m., and if you look up, you’re going to see the nighttime sky. If you look down, you’re going to see puddles on the pavement. If you turn around, you’re going to see the other side of the alley,” Bemis said. “In a traffic stop scenario on the side of a highway, if you turn around, you’re going to see traffic that’s passing by and it’s going to feel like it’s really passing by. So immersive virtual reality adds a sense of realism that hasn’t been able to be duplicated before in the training room.”
BUILDING REALISTIC SCENARIOS THAT KEEP UP WITH CURRENT CHALLENGES
“Most police officers do not have to get involved in some type of a violent confrontation every day. Certainly, we want to prepare for that, however, most of the activities we do from day to day don’t involve using any kind of force whatsoever,” said Bemis. “They involve an extensive amount of communication and an extensive amount of decision-making as to how to apply current laws. By and large, there isn’t really an opportunity to practice those skills until you are in those kinds of situations.”
Most police interactions are resolved without incident, although an increasing share of calls for service involve persons who are experiencing mental illness or addiction or who otherwise may be noncompliant. Branching scenarios for these more common interactions provide a training model that encourages de-escalation through dialogue and communication, where possible, before escalating to physical restraint or pain compliance. But should the need arise for an officer to use restraint or force, the practice will prepare them to respond appropriately and effectively.
“Those training scenarios [of the past] were all created taking that student officer down a path where the outcome was either they were going to use force or they were going to make a decision that they didn’t need to use force. In the past, they really hadn’t created training scenarios that were reflective of all the other types of activities police officers find themselves in,” said Bemis.
That’s why Wrap Reality offers more than 40 training scenarios that include not just active shooter incidents or situations like domestic violence calls that can escalate rapidly, but also scenarios where the officer can practice applying policies, laws and statutes, and skills like conducting an interview related to a criminal investigation.
This is made easier using a combination of various computer-generated imagery (CGI) technologies and techniques.
THE BENEFITS OF CREATING TRAINING SCENARIOS FOR VIRTUAL REALITY TRAINING
With scenarios created for VR training, police trainers need not worry about getting more mileage from an outdated live-action training video (likely filmed some years ago at great expense and now reflecting outdated props, wardrobe and vehicles from a decade ago).
Using CGI digital wizardry, scenario builders can update character wardrobes, backgrounds, vehicles and other elements, so the student isn’t distracted by out-of-date details. This can be a turn-off that degrades the learning experience, especially for Gen Z and Gen Y recruits, many who spent their youths playing video games with high production values inspired by Hollywood action movies.
More importantly, using state-of-the-art computer graphics to generate virtual scenarios offers greater speed, flexibility and affordability than live-action training videos. This means that providers of virtual reality training can offer a wider range of training scenarios that meet the challenges of the moment.
It also allows for the production of less heart-pounding but equally important scenarios that reflect an officer’s daily experiences – like how to interact with a hostile protestor while protecting their constitutional rights, interview a witness, respond to a medical emergency, collect crime scene evidence or talk to another officer about an uncomfortable topic like mental health wellness.
“When you prepare the student to get into the training module, you give them the equipment that they’re going to need, you explain to them the basics of how to move around in a virtual environment and we talk about the safety aspects of that,” Bemis explained. “Then we prepare them by giving them what we call a prologue – a little bit of information that sets the tone for what their assignment is and the things they might encounter when they get there. Then we drop them in.”
Once dropped into the virtual world, the student can move around to observe what is taking place in the scenario and respond as they’ve been trained to. Meanwhile, the trainer is operating the system and choosing verbal dialogue to respond to the student officer’s questions.
“As they’re building up all of those clues and trying to come to an understanding of what’s taking place to resolve the situation, the operator of the system can then start to select physical actions for events within the module itself to allow things to continue to unfold or to be responsive to what the officer’s directions are,” Bemis explained.
The operator can interact with the student in real time, not in “movie time,” so the conversation feels natural, enhancing retention because of the realism and real-time experience.
EVALUATING THE STUDENT’S PERFORMANCE
“The most important part of any training session isn’t the session,” said Bemis. “It’s the debriefing or the performance evaluation phase that takes place after the session ends.”
This is the phase where the trainer and the student discuss the training session to identify what went well, what could have been improved upon and how the student felt about the experience.
Wrap Reality captures the sessions and offers several distinct levels of performance evaluation capabilities ranging from a quick discussion to a review of a performance dashboard that shows important data like a timeline of actions, how long it took to recognize the threat and how much force was applied.
“Viewing on a full body image of the scenario characters, you can see the angle of entry and area of impact each time a selected force option is used,” explained Bemis, “because that becomes very crucial in being able to articulate later how things take place in the dynamics of a violent confrontation.”
For a deeper dive into the training and performance, the operator can even show a replay of the event as it took place. A trainer can even change the point of view to make a training point, using the camera to look back at the officer in a way that’s virtually impossible to replicate using a projection screen system.
“The beauty of using computer graphics is that we can give you a different point of view as a third person,” said Bemis. “You can actually watch your avatar.”
Bemis has seen student officers get so immersed in the training that they physically react to the stimuli. Elevated heart rate, sweating, even falling down when they forget that the vehicle they are trying to lean on is not actually there or leaning over to grab a virtual character who jumps off a bridge railing.
“What’s remarkable is that, just a few seconds earlier, they were fully aware of their location when they donned the headset before entering the situation, yet they seem to have quickly forgotten,” said Bemis. “They were unaware of the distance they had traveled while focusing on whatever caught their attention upon entering the environment. Suddenly, they find themselves on the opposite side, puzzled, asking, ‘How did I end up here?’
“That is the immersive power of VR that makes this the ideal 21st century training tool.”