Virtual reality is being used to help victims of crime prepare for giving evidence in court.
Belfast-based tech company Immersonal designed the software that is being rolled out across 52 Scottish courts in the next year.
It is also being piloted in The Hague as part of the International Criminal Court.
The technology allows victims to interact with key members of the judicial process in a virtual world.
Immersonal CEO Tom Houston said the primary aim was to make the court experience less traumatic by giving victims more information about what to expect.
He said: “Going to court can be intimidating but this technology allows you to walk through a three-dimensional world which recreates the actual court building where the case is to be held.
“You can interact in a virtual environment that includes the people and objects you will encounter during your case.”
Through a headset, users are able to navigate their way through the virtual court and click on individuals such as the court clerk who will explain their role.
The team of virtual reality experts set up the company Immersonal in 2021.
Their main aim was developing affordable ways for organisations and individuals who are not tech-savvy to create their own virtual-reality experiences and training simulations.
The company has since secured a £500,000 contract with the Scottish Government to deliver the virtual-reality service in courts over the course of the next 12 months.
‘Victims need support’
The virtual-reality court scheme is not currently operating in Northern Ireland.
A 360-degree view of courtrooms across Northern Ireland is available online through the Victims Support NI website.
Former Victim Support CEO Geraldine Hanna was appointed as Northern Ireland’s first victims of crime commissioner last year.
Ms Hanna said that while 360 views of courts had offered a valuable insight into court buildings, she believes there is huge potential for virtual reality to help enhance and improve the experience of victims.
She added: “It’s really important that victims get as much information and support as possible in the run up to their trial.
“The developments in using virtual reality in the criminal justice system feels like the next step in the journey to help improve a victims experience.”
A Northern Ireland Courts and Tribunals Service (NICTS) spokesperson said: “NICTS are committed to working closely with our partners to provide appropriate support to victims and witnesses when they are required to attend court at what is a challenging time in their lives.”
In some circumstances the Department of Justice also offers initiatives which allow vulnerable victims and witnesses to provide their evidence away from the court environment, for example at remote evidence centres.
‘A traumatic experience’
Charles Little was the first person on the scene when his parents-in-law were murdered in their home by a mental-health patient.
Michael and Marjorie Cawdery, both 83, died in a frenzied knife attack in Portadown, County Armagh, in May 2017.
Mr Little said: “When I arrived the perpetrator nearly ran me down as he escaped in the family car, so it was clearly a very traumatic experience.
“But while the trauma starts with the incident, dealing with the criminal justice system – the trauma can continue.”
In June 2018 Thomas Scott McEntee, who suffers from paranoid schizophrenia, was sentenced to a minimum of 10 years in prison.
Mr Little said: “During that court case it was the first time I’d ever been in a courtroom and it was very overwhelming.
“It felt like everyone knew what they were doing except for my family and I.”
Mr Little believes the potential of virtual reality to improve the experience of victims in the justice system should be explored further.
He said: “Certainly from what I’ve heard about this technology, where you can interact and have people explain their roles, I think this would be hugely helpful.
“It’s about ensuring the victim’s ability to act as a witness at the trial and we should embrace anything that can help with that.”