Virtual Burglary Helping to Prevent a Real One
It’s impossible for researchers to study crime by observing the criminal act. Until recently we have been limited to either interviewing criminals or using rudimentary experiments to understand what drives their decisions and behaviour around the scene of the crime. This is far from ideal as memory for past events is full of error, even in the most compliant of research participants. As a result, over the last number of years I’ve led an interdisciplinary team to build a proof of concept that offending behaviour can be studied in virtual reality. Alongside my own discipline of forensic psychology, our group includes criminologists, neuroscientists and creative technologists across five different universities in the UK and Europe.
We undertook a number of pilot studies involving experienced burglars, ex-burglars, students and the general public using real and virtual neighbourhoods to ‘observe’ virtual burglaries. We wanted to see whether predictions about burglars’ expertise could be replicated in virtual environments. We managed to do this and discovered much more in the process about how burglars navigate and appraise properties both inside and outside the house, how they move, what items they are drawn to and what deters them. We call this the Virtual Enactment Method.
Education for burglary prevention
As well as better understanding the burglar’s thoughts, emotions and behaviour, there are many aspects of our data that could be exploited by industries in the security field and I was recently asked by an international corporate risk and resilience publication (BRINK news) to write an article about this. I outlined the implications of what we’ve learned for changing the environment in order to reduce opportunities for crime and also how our work can support new AI technologies for home security systems (a growing area of development). I also stressed the importance of utilising the data and virtual reality platforms to coach ordinary citizens to improve their awareness of burglary risk, which we’ve shown to be quite poor.
One development of our work has been to make a series of burglary prevention video clips, funded by the University’s Security and Risk Theme, which we see as a first step towards developing virtual environments for use with the general public and insurance companies in the fight against crime.