Wednesday, February 28, 2007

3-Dimensional Representations

Throughout the years there have been many methods of sketching crime scenes. When I started, I used graph paper and a pencil. I eventually started using Adobe Illustrator which is great for doing scaled diagrams, but is not exactly user-friendly. I have tried other programs on the market that are capable of creating 3-Dimensional representations, but have never been impressed. The graphics are very poor and I would be embarrassed to try to pass it off to a jury.

My department recently acquired Vista FX3 which was designed by Visual Statement. The first versions of this software were geared toward traffic accident reconstruction. Over the years, Vista FX developed into a very capable program. Visual Statement recently added a crime scene module to their software. I spent five days in training to learn how to use this software effectively.

The catch is, you can’t use the software effectively. While it may be useful for traffic accident diagrams, the crime scene module of Vista FX3 is exceedingly flawed. Several times during the training, the instructor would have us create 3D representations of specific scenes, like a person jumping off of a building, for instance. We spent nearly an hour setting up a simple non-detailed scene including only a skyscraper and a person jumping from the roof only to watch the person disappear from the screen each time the animation started. Another hour later, we were all seeing red as the instructor tried to convince us that we were all doing it incorrectly and we were all morons. Eventually, he admitted that it must be a bug in the software. I didn’t mind that so much because the chances that I will ever have to animate a person jumping from a skyscraper are practically zilch. What I did mind is that bugs were so predominant that the instructor asked me to spend a day of the training trying to find a way to create a building with more than one floor where you could place the scene inside of the building. It is nearly impossible, but it can be done. Because of that little adventure, I missed out on a full day of training just to show the company how to fix their own software.

VistaFX3 actually has great potential (which is why my department purchased it) which includes “smart” designs where you place one section of a building near another, and they automatically ‘snap’ together seamlessly. The graphics are impressive as long as you use them on a fairly beefy computer. You can also add crime scene photographs on top of objects, including floors and walls, in the diagram to make them look incredibly realistic. And the examples they use to sell the product show incredibly detailed scenes with animated figures, blood spatter, bullet trajectories, blah, blah, and blah. Of course, few of these examples could be successfully recreated and must have taken the designers months to build.

As I sat through this mire of technology, I started to wonder how much use I would get out of it. I have never had a problem on the stand explaining the chain of events using photographs and physical evidence. The jury always got it and my testimony has never been successfully challenged. On the other hand, if I start bringing 3-D animations into the courtroom, the door is opened for intense scrutiny. With photographs, I can prove what happened. With evidence, I can prove who did it. But there are a lot of unknowns in between. For instance, was the shooters left arm at his side during the murder? – or was it in some other position? Did the victim have their arms over their face when they were shot in the chest? – or were they reaching out toward their attacker? These are points that have no relevance to the fact that the suspect murdered the victim, but have to be interpreted in the animation in some way. So now the defense attorney starts questioning these things. Should I tell them that this is only my artistic interpretation? – or that it’s none of their business?

I usually embrace technology. The exception is useless technology. This program definitely comes under the heading of useless. If you are looking for ways to spend your department’s money, spend it on better cameras, light sources, or graph paper. I would consider a truckload of Frisbees to be a better purchase.