First RespondXR: Digital vulnerability of immersive training for first responders
By Niamh F Healy, on 16 February 2022
For the past few months, I have had the pleasure of working as a research assistant on the First Respond XR project. The pilot study, led by Dr Leonie Tanczer, Lecturer in International Security and Emerging Technologies at UCL STEaPP, has been funded by the SPRITE Hub and explores the digital vulnerabilities associated with using Extended Reality (XR) to train police officers in the UK.
XR is an umbrella term used in reference to different types of virtual reality technology: immersive, three-dimensional, computer-generated environments. Popular examples of XR include Oculus Rift, a fully-immersive VR gaming headset, or Pokémon Go, which superimposes Pokémon onto the user’s environment via their smartphone cameras, an example of augmented reality (AR).
As the application areas of this technology are manifold, our four-month-long pilot study (December 2021 – March 2022) has the ambition to map the social, ethical, technical, and legal risks associated with the use of XR technology in the police training context. Our team (Dr Leonie Tanczer, Professor David McIlhatton, Professor Jill Marshall, Dr Mark McGill, Dr Lena Podoletz, Marina Heilbrunn and Niamh Healy) is set together with human-computer interaction (HCI) researchers, legal experts, security academics, and criminology and policing specialists. The multidisciplinary nature of the team, encompassing social, legal and technical expertise, benefits the examination of this timely issue and aids a holistic analysis of XR systems in the policing context. To date, we have been conducting a literature review to identify existing use cases of XR for police training as well as applications in other first responders domains (i.e., health, military, fire service). Our legal team has also begun mapping the complex legal context surrounding police use of XR for training purposes.
In this blog, I share some of our social team’s initial findings, set out our next research steps, and explain how interested parties could get involved in our study.
Police training in England and Wales – how does it work?
Policing in England and Wales is performed by 43 territorial police forces, accompanied by three specialist police forces: the British Transport Police, the Civil Nuclear Constabulary, and the Ministry of Defence Police. Separate national police forces operate in Scotland and Northern Ireland. Police services in the UK have a great deal of autonomy, under the principle of operational independence.
The College of Policing is the professional body for English and Welsh policing, responsible for sharing knowledge and good practice, setting standards, and supporting professional development. As part of its responsibilities, in 2016 the College led changes to the training of initial recruits with the introduction of the Policing education qualifications framework (PEQF). This framework sets out standardised entry routes to police forces throughout the country. The College of Policing also sets the National Policing Curriculum which establishes learning outcomes for police training throughout an officer’s career. Individual police forces then use the learning outcomes developed by the College to design and deliver training, often with commercial or educational partners. The College of Policing also delivers some courses itself, including online via its Managed Learning Environment.
XR applications in UK policing
Police forces in the UK have a long history of using ‘real-life’ simulations, such as ‘Hydra Suites’, to train both initial recruits and in-service police officers. The first use of virtual reality for police training in the UK dates to 2018 when Gwent Police introduced an immersive system to train police officers to deal with domestic abuse cases. Within a purpose-built room termed ‘the cave’, officers are surrounded by virtual screens and practice decision-making skills while responding to a domestic abuse incident. A similar project began recently in 2021 by Greater Manchester Police. In partnership with a commercial virtual reality provider and relevant stakeholders, the force developed three virtual reality scenarios to help officers understand empathise with hate crime victims. In 2020, Derbyshire Constabulary started using a VR system to deliver training on the use of force with a taser. Using an Oculus Quest headset and an imitation taser, police officers could explore different virtual environments and practice responses to a knife-wielding assailant.
Police forces have also used VR for non-training purposes. Several forces have explored the development of virtual reality applications for public engagement. Warwickshire Police and West Mercia Police have both developed virtual reality applications to educate young people. Warwickshire police used individual headsets to show users a 360-degree film exploring underage drinking and personal safety, while West Mercia police’s VR mobile application focused on road safety.
In addition to mapping the risks associated with XR use in police training, a further research aim of our project is to understand why police forces are – or should be – using this particular technology. What is the anticipated benefit of using virtual reality for training, compared to traditional simulation methods?
In our survey of academic literature proposing XR training systems for police, the most prevalent justification for using XR was the perceived quality of learning XR offers. As participants in VR simulations have greater feelings of presence and experience a greater sense of realism, authors anticipate improved learning outcomes in VR simulations compared to traditional training simulations.
However, evidence of increased transfer of knowledge in VR versus traditional learning simulation is limited. In a recent study, researchers found that while participants in VR training may have improved performance in the performance of a VR task, this did not translate to improvements in the behaviours underlying successful performance of the relevant task. In this case: more efficient gaze behaviours in performance of a police search. This study highlights a key challenge associated with VR learning: how to ensure that learning achieved in VR simulation transfers to the performance of a real-world task.
Other identified benefits of XR training include safety. Training simulations attempt to recreate real-life scenarios that police officers will face carrying out the course of their duties. This may include involvement with vulnerable people, such as children or the elderly, dangerous materials such as explosive devices, or expensive and delicate equipment such as novel robotic applications.
Virtual reality training grants police officers the opportunity to rehearse and learn appropriate responses to varying situations in a safe and restricted environment. The possibility of mistake is reduced and the risk of harm minimised. Similarly, VR may permit the delivery of reusable training, involving situations difficult or impossible to arrange in real-life. One author observed that in active shooter situations, the presence of distressed civilians, particularly young people, may cause stress in responders. However ethical and practical constraints limit the possibility for real-life scenarios to involve representations of civilians, curtailing the ability of police officers to prepare for this situation. Virtual reality allows the inclusion of civilian non-playable characters (NPC) in training simulations without any constraints.
Another major benefit some authors associated with XR training is its cost efficiency compared to traditional simulation training. However, so far, we haven’t identified any analysis of the comparative cost of real-world versus XR training. Indeed, XR is associated with high upfront costs as even lower-range head-mounted displays (HMDs) are priced at hundreds of pounds.
Project next steps
In the coming weeks, we will develop a taxonomy to help us categorize and compare the hazards we identified from our collected data. We hope our pilot study will aid future decision making on the deployment of such systems. We are always interested in connecting with interested parties and relevant stakeholders. Hence, if you would like to hear more about our work and help inform our next steps, please reach out directly to the team via Niamh.Healy@ucl.ac.uk.