Virtual Reality in Prison:
A Versatile Solution
University of Washington
VR Technology Overview 2
Current AR/ VR Technologies 4
VR (PC-based and standalone) 4
VR (smartphone-based) 5
A Note on Connectivity 6
VR Applications 6
Mental Health 8
Relaxation/ DBT 8
Exposure Therapy 8
Physical Health 10
Telemedicine/ Telesurgery 10
Physical Therapy 10
VR in Prison 10
Identifying Problems and Justifying Solutions 11
DBT: Dialectical Behavior Therapy & Relaxation 12
VRET: Virtual Reality Exposure Therapy 13
Space, Storage, and Setup 18
Students at the TRU (Twin Rivers Unit of the Monroe Correctional Complex) and at the UW (University of Washington) both attended a class called HONORS 230B: Education Inside Prison. One of the projects in this class entailed using virtual reality inside prison. This document serves to embody the final project presentation and provide information for both DOC officials and inmates. This document is divided into three main sections: an introduction to AR/ VR technology and its current state; the various applications of VR; and the practical applications and considerations of VR in prison.
VR stands for virtual reality: “the computer-generated simulation of a three-dimensional image or environment that can be interacted with in a seemingly real or physical way by a person using special electronic equipment, such as a helmet with a screen inside or gloves fitted with sensors.”
AR stands for augmented reality: “a technology that superimposes a computer-generated image on a user's view of the real world, thus providing a composite view.”
Virtual Reality is a term which describes technologies that simulate an immersive environment which a user can view (and interact with in some cases) to the extent that they feel like they’re actually there. A TV, in a sense, is a basic step towards VR; A TV w/ 3D goggles is a better step towards VR. Mono headphones, in a sense, are a basic step towards VR; stereo headphones w/ surround sound are a better step towards VR.
Currently, almost all VR technologies entail a headset or pair of goggles which include some combination of digital screens and lenses such that the user views a scene from a perspective of a viewer in the scene.
Almost all VR technologies involve rotational tracking which enables a user to get a “360” or complete view of the scene by rotating their head and looking around the environment. Some VR technologies include translational tracking which enables a user to walk around (within a confined, open space) the environment; generally, these also enable the user to have controllers which can also be tracked, enabling interaction with objects in the virtual environment. Thus, there are generally two categories of VR: PC-based VR with translational tracking and interaction, and smartphone-based VR - where one places a smartphone into the compartment of a goggle with lenses. There are also standalone VR headsets which serve as a bridge between the portability and functionality of smartphone-based and PC-based headsets.
Augmented reality is a term which describes technologies that simulate/ project virtual objects onto a view of the real world. Snapchat filters and Iron Man’s computer identifying objects through his heads-up display are a couple common examples of AR. Most AR involves looking through the smartphone’s display of its live camera feed, and displaying an image over that. This kind of AR can, to a certain extent, track the environment through the camera such that an image of a dancing hotdog, for example, placed on a desk will remain in that position on that desk even when the camera rotates around it. More advanced AR, such as the Microsoft Hololens, are semi-transparent lenses which project images onto the lenses. Utilizing some combination of inertial measurement units and depth cameras, the Hololens is able to keep images solidly in-place. The Hololens also recognizes gestures, so the user is able to use their hands to open and interact with applications and objects (which appear to the user to be projected onto the real world, like a hologram). Thus, there are generally two categories of AR: those which appear through a smartphone’s display of its camera feed, and those which the user can directly see/ interact with through a headset.
1,080 by 1,200 (per eye)
1,080 by 1,200 (per eye)
1,280 by 1,440 (per eye)
QHD (2560 x 1440)
$500 (regular) $800 (pro)
$200 (32 GB)
$250 (64 GB)
Two, fully-tracked controllers
Two, tracked (w/rt headset) controllers OR gamepad
3 DoF (rotational) Oculus Go Controller
3 DoF (rotational) Daydream Motion Controller
PC + Steam VR
PC + Oculus
Standalone, but needs to connect to smartphone app initially
Full - rotational and translational + camera
Rotational + camera
Rotational + some translational (6 DoF)
Good - can also use Daydream camera
Good, with daydream SDK
Room or chair
Chair + space
Pro - speakers included; not otherwise
Based on smartphone screen resolution. Less but decent.
Single hand simple controller w/ trackpad
Single hand simple controller w/ trackpad
Small gamepad may be included
Controller w/ joysticks built on headset
Android + GearVR
Decent, all use Android SDK, GearVR may have some more support for developers
Little, a chair would suffice
Yes (via headphone jack)
Currently the most popular AR headset available is the Microsoft Hololens ($3000). There’s also the Meta 2 ($1500) which is similar but cheaper and probably has less support. There are several products of the “Google Glass” nature; currently all of these products are meant for professional use in certain industries (not for consumers). The Hololens has high resolution; costs $3000; is portable and standalone; uses external cameras to use hands as controllers and embody the equivalent of translational and rotational tracking; has good support and is developer-friendly (through Unity/ SteamVR plugin); doesn’t require much space (chair); and includes speakers. The Meta 2 is PC-reliant, has a wider field of view; but tracking/ calibration is extremely poor and has quite a few flaws - would not recommend.
Overall, there aren’t that many AR technologies on the market - Hololens is what’s currently available for consumers and is relatively reliable. For the purposes of this project, AR isn’t currently a feasible medium - so the rest of this document will focus only on VR.
Most of these devices can connect to the internet, but all of these devices can be used offline. It’s important to understand that VR, especially PC-based VR, is nothing but a projector on your head. With PC-based VR, plugging in the VR headset shows up as a second monitor on the computer’s list of devices. As long as the computer doesn’t have WiFi capabilities, neither does the headset. The WiFi capabilities for smartphone-based VR depend on the smartphone, and the aforementioned standalone devices have WiFi capabilities. After configuration, all devices can be used offline; connectivity, then, becomes an important issue when considering the applications themselves. Google Earth, for example, most likely requires connection to the internet. We will discuss more about security in a later section.
As described in the first section, VR is nothing but an immersive medium; therefore, I can envision having applications in every possible field. This section will act as an annotated bibliography, with sources that support/ demonstrate the various applications of VR.
Virtual reality applications and explorations (1993). In Wexelblat A. (Ed.), Academic Press.
This book is – despite its early date – a beautiful source for demonstrating the applications of VR; it has a couple chapters supporting the efficacy of VR in education. Chapter 8 discusses how NASA uses VR to visualize planets and has several purposes in the field of exploration.
Side note: there’s a tidbit about something produced in VR at UW in the 90’s in the first few pages.
Google Earth VR. Retrieved from https://vr.google.com/earth/
Applications like Galaxy Explorer on the Hololens and Google Earth on SteamVR demonstrate how VR can be used as tool for exploration in terms of education – re-exploration.
Abstracts of cochrane reviews. (2009). International Journal of Gynecology & Obstetrics, 106(1), 76-78. 10.1016/j.ijgo.2009.03.012 Retrieved from https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ijgo.2009.03.012 \\ Gurusamy, K. S., Aggarwal, R., Palanivelu, L., & Davidson, B. R. (2009). Virtual reality training for surgical trainees in laparoscopic surgery. Cochrane Database Syst Rev, 1(4).
This article simply concludes that “virtual reality training improves standard surgical training and is at least as effective as video trainer training.”
Seymour, N. E., Gallagher, A. G., Roman, S. A., O'Brien, M. K., Bansal, V. K., Andersen, D. K., & Satava, R. M. (2002). Virtual reality training improves operating room performance: Results of a randomized, double-blinded study. Annals of Surgery, 236(4), 458-464. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12368674
This study concludes: “The use of VR surgical simulation to reach specific target criteria significantly improved the OR [operating room] performance of residents during laparoscopic cholecystectomy. This validation of transfer of training skills from VR to OR sets the stage for more sophisticated uses of VR in assessment, training, error reduction, and certification of surgeons.”
Haque, S., & Srinivasan, S. (2006). A meta-analysis of the training effectiveness of virtual reality surgical simulators.IEEE Transactions on Information Technology in Biomedicine, 10(1), 51-58. doi:10.1109/TITB.2005.855529
The conclusion states: “The available observational data provides evidence that training with virtual reality simulators does lessen the time and the errors in the performance of a given surgical task, and, furthermore, it can clearly differentiate between the less experienced and the experienced trainees among its users.”
Additionally, applications/ simulators for training to be a car mechanic or welder are also relevant.
Riva, G., Mantovani, F., Capideville, C. S., Preziosa, A., Morganti, F., Villani, D., . . . Alcañiz, M. (2007). Affective interactions using virtual reality: The link between presence and emotions. CyberPsychology & Behavior, 10(1), 45-56. 10.1089/cpb.2006.9993 Retrieved from https://doi.org/10.1089/cpb.2006.9993 (+ cross reference)
This study concludes that VR is effective in creating a sense of “presence” in affective environments, i.e. environments designed to be either anxiety-inducing or relaxing. VR is effective in both causing relaxation and anxiety – depending on the program/ creator’s intention. This can lead to the conclusion that VR can be effectively relaxing – if intended.
Carline, J. Nature Treks VR. Retrieved from http://greenergames.net/
Nature Treks VR is an immersive relaxation experience with environments “expertly crafted to harness and reflect specific emotional states using immersive sound and colour.” I’m currently collaborating with the developer to incorporate DBT principles for this project.
Gomez, J., Hoffman, H. G., Bistricky, S. L., Gonzalez, M., Rosenberg, L., Sampaio, M., . . . Linehan, M. M. (2017). The use of virtual reality facilitates dialectical behavior therapy® “Observing sounds and visuals” mindfulness skills training exercises for a latino patient with severe burns: A case study. Frontiers in Psychology, 8. Retrieved from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5622494/
This is the only study I’ve found which uses VR and DBT together as a treatment method, because it’s the first: “The current case study explored for the first time, the use of immersive virtual reality enhanced DBT® mindfulness skills training with a burn patient. The patient reported reductions in negative emotions and increases in positive emotions, after VR DBT® mindfulness skills training. Immersive Virtual Reality is becoming widely available to mainstream consumers, and thus has the potential to make this treatment available to a much wider number of patient populations.”
Rothbaum, B. O., Hodges, L. F., Ready, D., Graap, K., & Alarcon, R. D. (2001). Virtual reality exposure therapy for vietnam veterans with posttraumatic stress disorder. The Journal of Clinical Psychiatry, 62(8), 617-622. 10.4088/JCP.v62n0808
This brief article basically concludes that “virtual reality exposure therapy holds promise for treating PTSD in Vietnam veterans.”
Gonçalves, R., Pedrozo, A. L., Coutinho, E. S. F., Figueira, I., & Ventura, P. (2012). Efficacy of virtual reality exposure therapy in the treatment of PTSD: A systematic review. Plos One, 7(12), e48469. Retrieved from https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0048469
This study concludes that: “The results of this systematic review suggest the potential efficacy of VRET in the treatment of PTSD for different types of trauma. VRET proved to be as efficacious as exposure therapy. VRET can be particularly useful in the treatment of PTSD that is resistant to traditional exposure because it allows for greater engagement by the patient and, consequently, greater activation of the traumatic memory, which is necessary for the extinction of the conditioned fear.”
Morina, N., Ijntema, H., Meyerbröker, K., & Emmelkamp, P. M. G. (2015). Can virtual reality exposure therapy gains be generalized to real-life? A meta-analysis of studies applying behavioral assessments. Behaviour Research and Therapy, 74, 18-24. 10.1016/j.brat.2015.08.010 Retrieved from https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0005796715300334
“In the last two decades, virtual reality exposure therapy (VRET) has been increasingly applied in treating individuals with anxiety disorders, in particular specific phobias. The therapeutic goals in VRET are based on treatment strategies used in behavior therapy while making use of virtual worlds that resemble feared real-life situations. Accordingly, virtual worlds are used to enable systematic exposure to feared stimuli within a contextually relevant situation. The advantage of using VRET rather than exposure in vivo (i.e., carried out in real-life situations) or imaginal exposure (i.e., carried out through imagination) lies in the possibility of controlling the quality, intensity, duration and frequency of exposure. The control of exposure elements might be more manageable than in exposure in vivo or imaginal exposure as the stimuli eliciting anxiety can be more easily modified and manipulated by therapists.”
“In conclusion, the current findings support the efficacy of VRET for specific phobias. Results gained by VRET seem to significantly affect positive change in real-life.”
North, M. M., North, S. M., & Coble, J. R. (1997). Virtual reality therapy: An effective treatment for psychological disorders. Studies in Health Technology and Informatics, 44, 59. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/10175343
This paper provides a good summary of virtual reality therapy studies in various contexts.
Milk, C. How virtual reality can create the ultimate empathy machine. (2015).[Video] TED.
This TED talk demonstrates how VR can be used to create empathy within viewers for real people in stories expressed through a VR movie. His project, with the UN, depicts the life of refugees in camps - and brings that depiction to users around the world. On a side note, empathy itself is an important aspect of mental health/ development – and is fundamental to engineering/ problem-solving when considering multiple perspectives on a problem.
Satava, R. M. (1995). Virtual reality, telesurgery, and the new world order of medicine. Journal of Image Guided Surgery, 1(1), 12-16. AID-IGS3>3.0.CO;2-P Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/9079422
This doesn’t necessarily support any claims, but it does demonstrate how VR and telesurgery go hand-in-hand (telesurgery is a field independent of VR).
Hoffman, H., Patterson, D., & Carrougher, G. (2000). Use of virtual reality for adjunctive treatment of adult burn pain during physical therapy: A controlled study. The Clinical Journal of Pain, 16(3), 244-250. 10.1097/00002508-200009000-00010 Retrieved from https://journals.lww.com/clinicalpain/Abstract/2000/09000/Use_of_Virtual_Reality_for_Adjunctive_Treatment_of.10.aspx
“Conclusions: Results provided preliminary evidence that VR can function as a strong nonpharmacologic pain reduction technique for adult burn patients during physical therapy and potentially for other painful procedures or pain populations.”
Additionally, some work towards AR applications in physical therapy can be seen in my CSNE Hackathon project.
Thus far, we have learned about what VR is and what applications it serves. Now, in this section, we will delve into what applications VR has inside prison. We will then demonstrate, through a standard engineering process, how VR - in these applications - is the best solution for the problems addressed. Finally, we will explain all the considerations of VR in prison: issues related to security, storage, etc...
Through discussion with the TRU students, and with some research, we’ve identified three main applications of virtual reality in prison:
In this section, we will justify that these three applications/ solutions most effectively solve specific problems. We will do this through a simple but standard engineering-based process. There are three main aspects of each solution: security/ logistics, cost, and benefit/ effectiveness. We can “quantify” how good a solution is by rating how well the solution performs in each of these aspects. Suppose each aspect is rated from 1-5, 1 being the worst and 5 being the best. Then, let’s multiply the “benefit” category by 2 to weight its significance; we do this because benefit is ultimately what we’re looking for, whilst cost and security are considerations. For example, a single piece of paper is a 5 in both security and cost - but it won’t effectively solve an issue such as high recidivism rates - which is why we must weight benefit at least as twice as much as the other categories.
The notation we’ll use would look like “[ Security | Cost | Benefit ]: Total.” Thus, a perfect solution would be a [ 5 | 5 | 5 ]: 20; remember that the last 5 is multiplied by 2 for the total sum. A given rating for a solution with respect to some problem is judged relative to other solutions for that same problem. All the following ratings were judged by the project teammates and I - every number has some discussed justification behind it.
This application addresses a gap in education inside prison. Specifically, there’s a lack of feasible hands-on education which can occur conveniently and more frequently. Hands-on education is far different from watching videos, reading, or doing assignments - it’s not simply better or more convenient; in certain subjects, such as physics, it’s absolutely essential.
A lack of hands-on education, either in vocational training (welder, mechanic) or lab-based coursework (physics, chemistry, biology).
This application addresses certain facets of mental health care in prison listed below. Both of these problem-solution pairings relate to the more therapeutic/ relaxing side of mental health therapy. DBT entails four aspects: mindfulness, interpersonal effectiveness, emotion regulation, and distress tolerance. The core of DBT is within its visualization exercises - which can effectively be taught and personalized through VR.
Problem : A lack of individualized mental health care for inmates; PTSD; negative emotional response.
Problem: A lack of opportunity for healthy environmental change; a mental escape.
This application is geared more towards re-entry. In this modern era, society can change rapidly over a decade or two - technologically and socially. Moreover, prisons have their own culture, rules, and expected behaviors which are absent in the outside world - which is chaotic compared to prisons. This leaves prisoners quite disconnected from the outside world, and many fear they won’t be able to re-enter properly. VR can address this issue effectively. I’ve developed an app which simulates scanning an ORCA card, which will be shown in the demo.
Problem: A lack of exposure to the outside world before release in (urgent/stressful) situations such as:
As we can see, in all of these problem-solution pairings, virtual reality provides the best solution. It tends to follow the pattern of [ 5 | 4 | 4 ]: 17. The reason for this is that the security and logistics of virtual reality are quite straightforward - which will be discussed in the next section - hence a 5 in that category. The cost is usually a 4 relative to other solutions, because it isn’t the cheapest, but is almost so; the cost will also be covered in the next section. The efficacy/ benefit of the solution is usually a 4, because it isn’t as good as Reality-based solutions (physical environment and interactions), but is almost so.
Despite what most consumers may think, VR is not expensive - especially not when it’s shared.
These are the costs of the individual components:
These would be the costs if we were to multiply the components such that a certain number of each one would roughly fill a standard classroom space:
Concerning maintenance, biannual repairs and software/ firmware/ content updates can be performed by students at UW or another dedicated organization. The aforementioned virtual reality products are physically durable and can last years - so costs associated with replacing the physical hardware are not considerable. With proper storage methods, sending VR systems in and out of prison should be quite simple to check and secure.
As mentioned previously, 4, 8, and 16 instances of Vives, Rifts, and standalone headsets (respectively) can each fill a classroom. Vives require some space to walk around, thus a classroom divided into quadrants would provide sufficient space. Rifts only need arms-length sitting space, thus twice as many Rifts can fit into the spaces required for Vives. Standalone headsets can be used in a regular classroom with multiple seats/ desks - it doesn’t require use of the arms - thus twice as many standalone headsets can fit into the spaces required for Rifts; moreover, 16 students can fit into a standard classroom - perhaps more. The space for storage will be considered below.
With the VR cart design below, setup, takedown, and maintenance should be secure. There are two types of VR carts: PC-based and standalone. The PC-based VR carts are small, and will each contain one Vive/ Rift + PC pair - so each PC-based VR cart is an independent VR system. Building our own would be the most secure and feasible option - there’s a draft sketch of what the inside would look like below. The standalone VR carts are basically shelves with chargers, and there are already classroom VR carts designed for this purpose - pictured below.
The PC Box would look like this:
The PC-based VR cart would look like this:
The standalone VR carts would look like this:
Again, the sketch above is the interior of the cart. It will be contained in a metal casing w/ lockable doors and on caster wheels. The back of the cart has a power strip. The bottom of the cart is where the PC is contained - with its own lock - and only has holes for ventilation and USB/ HDMI/ audio cables. Above that, there’s the link box which connects to the headset in the shelf above it. There will be a gap in the shelving such that the link box cables can remain connected to the headset. That same drawer also contains the controllers connected to charging cables. The topmost drawer above contains the base stations (for the Vive), manuals, and most importantly: the checklist/ log. The topmost part of the cart is similar to the top of a pizza box - with a monitor mounted to the inner surface that flips up, and a keyboard and mouse mounted to the bottom surface.
Source: the fourth page of the above user guide
Assuming that the base stations are already hooked up to the corners of the room, the procedure is relatively simple. A supervisor, for the sake of security, should execute these procedures.
Similar to above.
Main Parts (in box):
Similar to below - refer to user guide for additional instructions, nevertheless it’s quite simple.
Q: Can this be hacked?
A: Only if one lets a prisoner interact with the main system outside of an application. What this means is, if you’re using a fullscreen application on your computer or smartphone, you’re constrained inside it: you can’t access anything outside of that application (the desktop, home screen, etc…) therefore you can’t really hack anything. There are additional measures to ensure that “hacking” doesn’t occur: only permitting a CO/ authorized person to switch between apps, removing the hardware capability for connection (which we will do with our custom-built PC), keeping the smartphone in the holder while in use, and monitoring activity (since VR is basically a second monitor, whatever the user can see can be displayed on the monitor easily).
Q: How can we ensure secure maintenance/ updates?
A: In terms of hardware, the cart contains relatively few and simple physical components which can be checked easily. In terms of software, there’s an entire field of network security/ cryptography dedicated to ensuring integrity and authentication - so that we know the content we want isn’t tampered with and is from an authorized source (this is the same type of network security used to update self-driving cars or medical equipment).
In the near future, we’d like to have a demo at the Reality Lab; then, if that goes well, a demo at TRU; then, if that goes well, a pilot program at TRU.
Ultimately, VR is a rather simple technology - like a projector on your head - which is safe and secure. There are a few flavors of VR, where costs correlates with capability correlates with space consumed. VR has effective applications in many fields, since it’s an immersive medium.
Most importantly, we’ve shown that VR can most effectively solve gaps in education, health, and re-entry programs in prison. It’s important to note that VR doesn’t solve education, health, and re-entry problems completely, but it does solve specific sub-problems - which have been defined. We’ve proven that VR is the most efficient solution - balancing security, cost, and benefit - for these problems. As a side note, having a virtual reality visiting room (a VR-VR, if you will) or VR physical therapy are also further possibilities.
The key takeaway is that VR is a multi-tool which can provide several, effective solutions in prison. If the confinement of inmates from (outside) reality results in certain issues, perhaps those can be solved with providing parts of another, but virtual, reality.