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The Future of Litigation Technology

September 1996
By Kenneth J. Lopez, J.D.President & CEO Animators at Law, Inc

In Ray Bradbury's futuristic short story The Veldt, a virtual reality (VR) room has replaced the television as a device for entertainment and education. The room is capable of simulating any environment that the user desires with lifelike detail. However, like any technological tool, there is a downside to the room when it is abused. By the end of the story, the rebellious children of the house use the room to bring about the deaths of their parents by seemingly fictitious lions. Although written nearly fifty years ago, the VR room described by Bradbury may offer today's attorneys a glimpse into the future of litigation and provide some important lessons about the uses of technology in the courtroom.

Virtual reality environments are the logical outgrowth of today's high tech litigation tool, computer animation. Indeed, they are essentially real-time computer animations played in every direction of the user's vision. They give the viewer the impression that they are within a computer generated world in which they are free to move about. In sophisticated VR worlds, a user may manipulate or interact with objects in the simulated environment. For example, one could pull levers on a machine or open doors in a room.

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In as much as today's litigators benefit from efficiency and persuasive power of computer animation, the litigators of the future will likely be able to use some form of virtual reality to help them win their cases. However, technology in the courtroom will have to first grow to accommodate the formal nature of the courtroom. One cannot help but laugh at the thought of twelve jurors, a federal district judge and the litigants donning virtual reality helmets in Darth Vader-like fashion.

Though it may at first sound silly, the need for this technology in the courtroom may be more urgent than one might initially think. Early in the O.J. Simpson criminal case, nineteen jurors took a $114,617 bus field trip to visit the various locations discussed throughout the subsequent trial. While police helicopters buzzed over the fourteen vehicle caravan and two hundred and fifty officers regulated traffic, court personnel attempted to shield the jury's eyes from two hundred billboards proclaiming Mr. Simpson to be either guilty or innocent. The stated purpose of the trip was to give the jury a sense of the size of the space of the crime scene and other relevant locations.

However, for much less than the cost of this jury's trip, a virtual reality environment could have been constructed. In this environment, what the jury would have been able to see could have been cleansed of the shouts of bystanders, the signs of protestors and a life size O.J. Simpson statue clothed in a football uniform. The VR model could have been accurately constructed to simulate the space, the lighting and the obstacles present at the scene of the crime.

Uses for this type of technology in the courtroom by the intellectual property litigator are limitless. For example, a virtual reality environment could be used to allow a litigator, judge or juror to manipulate sophisticated machinery or look inside and around a patented device. Possible future uses in intellectual property litigation will probably mirror today's corporate and government applications of the technology. Currently, Volvo uses virtual reality in accident simulations; Matsushita uses it to accurately simulate airflow, lighting and acoustics within a structure; architects use it to allow clients to visit a building before construction begins; the Army uses it to train soldiers and Kaiser-Permanente uses it in the treatment of patients with a fear of heights.

In addition to virtual reality, the future of litigation technology is being explored in Courtroom 21 at the William & Mary School of Law. In this litigation laboratory, real-time court reporting, courtroom display systems, computer animation, video conferencing and many other litigation technologies are regularly on display. Organizations like Courtroom 21 are clear leaders in pointing a direction toward the future of litigation. Perhaps, it will be in a courtroom like this where the first virtual reality simulator is installed. It could be used not only for litigation but also as a training tool for young attorneys who wish to challenge a simulated opponent in a mock trial.

An important fact to remember about virtual reality, computer animation or other litigation technologies is that they are becoming less expensive every year. What cost hundreds of thousands five years ago may today cost less than ten thousand dollars. This theme has been at the core of this series of three articles and cannot be overstated.

Despite consistently positive reactions by juries to computer animation and a likely positive reaction to virtual reality, a litigator must always be careful not to intimidate the jury. All presentations should be as easy to understand as possible. Just as Bradbury teaches that an entertaining room is not a replacement for good parenting, a litigator should know that litigation technology is not a replacement for skilled legal preparation. A jury can see through and ignore the most technologically adept presentation when the underlying arguments lack sound legal foundation. Regardless, when your day comes to use virtual reality or another litigation technology, one would hope that instead of Bradbury's lions, you find that you are the shark at the top of the courtroom food chain.