Cost/Benefit Analysis Tools Helps Agencies Decide “2D” or “3D”

As the investigator studied the details of the latest case to cross her desk, something about it seemed familiar, similar to a case from several months ago. Calling up that file, she slipped on the virtual reality goggles and took another look at the 3D scan of the earlier crime scene, searching for that “something” that had triggered her flashback.

Sound like the latest “no resemblance to real police work” drama on Wednesday night television? Maybe. But 3D crime scene scanning and virtual reality review tools are available, and for agencies wondering whether the technology investment would benefit them or be an expensive drain on too-limited funds, there’s a tool that can help.

Technician with 3D Glasses

The 3D Scanning for Crime Scene Investigation Cost/Benefit Analysis Tool, was developed out of “Analyzing the Impact of Virtual Reality and 3D Capture Technology on Crime Scene Investigation,” a project funded by the National Institute of Justice (NIJ) under Grant No. 2016-IJ-CX-0017.

A partnership between the Wisconsin Institute for Discovery Virtual Environments Group at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the Dane County Sheriff’s Office (DCSO), the project set out to compare several potential methods of capturing 3D crime scene data and provide a cost-benefit analysis report. However, the research team realized the difficulty of producing an analysis that had relevance to all of the 20,000-plus law enforcement agencies in this country, and came up with the online tool as the answer.

Principal Investigator Kevin Ponto says that as the team talked to members of the law enforcement community, they realized how difficult it was for criminal justice professionals to see how the overall analysis provided them with meaningful information.

“It was ‘I’m from a little tiny town Wisconsin, how do your results impact me? I’m from Chicago, how would this benefit me?’ So instead of continuing with only an all-encompassing approach, we also developed a tool that allows each agency to produce tailored results,” Ponto says.

To use the tool, agencies enter costs for personnel and equipment, and data on local homicide and traffic accident incidents, and come up with upfront costs, annual costs, specific savings, annual benefits, and comparisons between the costs and the benefits. The research team used data on homicides and traffic accidents because of specific benefits: homicides, because detailed reconstruction and the opportunity to “revisit the scene” months later could provide the information needed to solve a case, and accident reconstruction, because a 3D scan eliminates the need for time-consuming measurements and allows traffic flow to return to normal much more quickly.

Working in partnership with the DCSO, the laboratory team scanned one actual homicide scene and did other research at a crime scene house located at the University of Wisconsin-Platteville Criminal Justice Department. Researchers compared use of LIDAR technology and a handheld infrared scanner with traditional evidence-gathering techniques involving taking photographs and measurements by hand. The resulting cost-benefit analysis showed that LIDAR provided more positive cost benefits than the handheld scanner, and both provided positive benefits when compared to traditional methods. Those benefits include preserving the scene at the point in time the incident occurred, the potential to further measure and evaluate evidence at a later point in time, nonintrusive evidence-gathering methods and a substantial savings in labor hours, freeing officers for other duties.

A specific need to realize some of those benefits at a particular crime scene led Ponto and his fellow team members, Ross Tredinnick and Simon Smith, into using their knowledge of 3D scanning technology in a law enforcement setting. The lab was developed to research use of 3D scanning technology in the home health care setting, but during the investigation of a homicide west of the campus, the team received a call from the FBI asking if the methodology could be implemented at the crime scene. Tredinnick’s scan impressed the FBI agents and DCSO, but agents and officers thought the upfront cost would make everyday use of the technology impractical.

“People often are willing to invest in a technology if they understand its benefits, and those benefits were not clear to the individuals making the purchasing decisions,” Ponto says. “This technology is really transformative in its ability to allow you to do additional investigation when you’re no longer at the scene. If you re-open a case years later, you still have really rich information. If there’s bad weather coming in, you can capture outdoor evidence that otherwise could be lost. And with the recent revolution in home use of virtual reality, the costs might not be as high as purchasing departments believe.”

3D Camera

To get a better understanding of the potential applications and benefits of 3D technology to the law enforcement community, the research team set out to convene a series of focus groups to help them learn how crime scene investigators would use 3D images; their needs related to technology features, accuracy and display; and potential barriers.

“One really interesting hurdle the focus groups came up with is ‘How can you tell if someone has digitally altered a 3D recording?’ ” Ponto says. “Defense attorneys referred to ‘computer voodoo technology’ that you couldn’t be sure was real and accurate. Also, courtrooms generally don’t have cutting-edge technology when it comes to potentially displaying results for a jury.”

Focus groups from the law enforcement and legal communities have been completed, with a group involving individuals with jury experience yet to be convened. Additional field research and completion of a final report also remain to be done. And it was when the research team began to present those initial results to the law enforcement community that they realized the law enforcement community need was for neither a preliminary nor a final research report — it was for the Cost/Benefit Analysis Tool to help them determine benefits specific to their own agency.

“As we started talking to stakeholders, we realized it was unclear how the generalized data fit their needs. We realized it really wouldn’t be more work to make a tool that fit individual agencies and it would be much more useful,” Ponto says.

Access the Cost/Benefit Analysis Tool here. For more information on “Analyzing the Impact of Virtual Reality and 3D Capture Technology on Crime Scene Investigation,” including links to the grant report, focus group reports and cost-benefit analysis report, click here. For more information on NIJ’s digital forensics portfolio, contact Martin Novak, senior computer scientist, at

Article photos: Wisconsin Institute for Discovery Virtual Environments Group at the University of Wisconsin-Madison