Northern Regional Police, York County elected officials try new 3D virtual-reality training
For one police officer, that last step was a virtual doozy.
Sgt. Cody Becker of Northern York County Regional Police was the first volunteer to wear Wrap Reality's 3D virtual-reality headset during a training demonstration at the department's Dover Township headquarters on Monday, Jan. 11.
He was eager to jump into the great unknown.
His chief, fellow officers and several area elected officials were able to see on a big-screen television what Becker was seeing but couldn't experience it in the same way.
Moving around a training room, and with Wrap Reality Vice President Ethan Moeller spotting him to ensure he didn't walk into actual people or walls, Becker stepped into a virtual elevator — complete with awful elevator music — and went to the top floor.
When the doors slid open he was atop a skyscraper. Beyond the elevator floor was nothing but air and a wooden pirate-type plank that extended about 6 feet out from the elevator.
"My God," Becker said as he stared down at the steep drop. He said the experience felt real and that his heart rate increased.
As he inched out onto the plank Becker said, "There's water beading off it."
"That's your sweat," someone quipped. The room erupted in laughter.
Freefall: With Wrap Reality officials coaching him not to "lean" on the virtual elevator walls as he walked the plank — because others have done just that in other demonstrations, they said — Becker intentionally stepped off the flimsy plank and virtually plummeted many stories to the ground.
"Whoa," he said, laughing.
Others who tried the elevator demonstration, including Conewago Township Supervisor Lorreta Wilhide, chose not to step off the plank.
"Gosh, do you see my knees shaking?" Wilhide asked as she took her virtual elevator trip. She later said, "It really felt like I was up there."
The "full immersion" virtual-reality training allows officers to look behind them, above them and side to side, and their senses tell them they are actually in the room.
The program responds to their actions and modifies scenarios based on individual actions, Moeller said.
The 3D training allows more than one officer to participate at a time, and scenarios range from traffic stops on busy highways to active-shooter calls to domestic disputes to home-invasion calls, as well as shooting-range programs.
'By police, for police': In the domestic dispute scenario, a dog barks in the background the entire time. In the traffic stop scenario, cars and trucks speed past the officer standing along the side of the road.
"We like to say it's designed by police, for police," said Marc Thomas, chief government affairs officers for Wrap Technologies, the parent company of Wrap Reality. "It's a huge game-changer."
Thomas said officers can use Wrap Reality to practice firing their weapons, which would mean less time at the shooting range and fewer bullets used, he said.
After a training scenario, the programs analyze what actions the officer took and provide information including the timeline of the scenario, the number of shots an officer fired, the number of bullets that hit their target and how many missed their target, Wrap officials said. Trajectories can be examined as well.
Trainings include scenarios in which officers are using rifles, shotguns, pepper spray and Tasers — or simply their own people skills, they said, and the scenario grids can be up to 30-by-30-feet square. There are currently 47 scenarios that deal with everything from de-escalation to lethal use of force, Thomas said.
Plenty of options: Officers can use their own weapons, according to Thomas, who said it takes five minutes to switch out the parts that make service weapons fire and replace them with parts that let them work only in virtual reality.
Each scenario can be modified to increase or decrease the level of danger or to ensure officers won't be successful if they're not asking the right questions of the virtual people they encounter.
"Our motto is 'save lives and save careers,'" Thomas said.
Buying the system costs anywhere from $35,000 to $45,000 and includes one virtual-reality headset, he said. Leasing the system with one headset costs between $25,000 and $35,000 a year, he said, and includes every updated scenario going forward.
Northern Regional Police Chief Dave Lash tried the system and told The York Dispatch it's very realistic.
"You truly believe you're there," he said. "Your mind believes it. Your heart rate goes up."
Other uses: Lash noted that this was merely a demonstration. He doesn't yet know whether his department will lease or purchase Wrap Reality.
"We're always looking to provide our officers with the best training possible," he said.
The chief said the training system could also be useful for the department's Law Enforcement Explorers post and for citizens, "to see and experience some of the things our officers experience every day."
State Sen. Mike Regan, R-Carroll Township; state Rep. Keith Gillespie, R-Hellam Township; and York County President Commissioner Julie Wheeler all tried the technology as well.
Regan said it's important that training exercises make an officer's heart rate increase. He is a former U.S. marshal for Pennsylvania.
— Reach senior crime reporter Liz Evans Scolforo at email@example.com or on Twitter at @LizScolforoYD.