Helen Bertelli
Helen Bertelli (Courtesy photo)

Virtual reality (VR) is a field replete with great minds who create everything from platforms that enable virtual business meetings to content that helps people overcome phobias.

But ask any of them to recommend a good read on VR and chances are they won’t mention a white paper or academic missive. Instead, they’ll point you to science fiction: “Ready Player One” to be exact. About a dystopian near-future in which people use VR for education and escape, Ernest Cline’s debut novel is so popular it caught the eye of Steven Spielberg, who will release a film adaptation in 2018.

One should not, however, misinterpret all this to mean the industry as a whole is science fiction. It most definitely is not.

VR is projected to generate $30 billion in revenue by 2020; $150 billion if you count augmented reality (AR). Brands in industries from entertainment to medicine are already employing it. But for the attorney who still shrugs, let me give you a reason to read on.

Besides studying the impact of our own VR “walkable website,” for this article I interviewed lawyers, academics, trial consultants and top accounting firm executives to gain an understanding of how VR might impact the legal industry. In doing so I uncovered three reasons why VR should be on your radar: its potential to generate billable work, its use for marketing and its potential for use in the courtroom.

Prescience Can Pay

Accounting and consulting firms are actively studying VR, and in some cases, employing it in strategy or creating it for clients.

Deloitte, which last year purchased virtual reality firm Kid Neon, now follows VR in several reports, including its “TMT Predictions.” And for the first time this year, PwC’s “Global Entertainment & Media Outlook” includes a section on VR.

“We help clients to think about the business value of this and other new technologies,” said Jeremy Dalton, PwC UK’s VR/AR lead. “We do bespoke research for clients and we can build out VR applications and provide analysis on results.” PwC also offers workshops employing experts from disciplines such as VR along with big data, blockchain, sustainability, climate change and more, to help businesses minimize risk and maximize opportunity in a changing world.

While no law firm appears to have launched a specialized practice as of this writing, there are many lawyers who already serve the industry. Rosie Burbidge, a senior intellectual property lawyer at London law firm Fox Williams, was on the team of counsel representing Nintendo in a VR-related patent dispute with Philips that began in 2012, and her work in VR has continued since then. When asked whether specialized VR practices may develop in the future, she commented:

“This is frontier technology, so trying to shoehorn VR issues into existing legal approaches may not always work. For example, one defense to copyright infringement in the UK is that a copyright work was an ‘incidental inclusion’ in, for example, a film. This means that filmmakers don’t need to clear every single copyrighted work (e.g., a painting or photograph) that happens to briefly appear in the background of a shot. However, in a VR world, anything can be the focus of the user’s attention for as long as the user wants, so it may be harder to rely on the incidental inclusion defense in future VR disputes.”

VR in PR and Marketing

Recently a consultancy announced it was seeking a VR partner to build a 360 video/VR channel of original journalism content for one of the largest networks in the world. No word as to which network this is, but it should come as no surprise; Discovery Channel and Netflix already employ VR. It may not be long before viewers can feel like they are next to Anderson Cooper as he interviews world leaders.

Lawyers and marketers who create thought leadership should recognize that VR is likely to be the next frontier for publishing. As with all new marketing strategies, those who are in on the ground floor tend to reap more benefits than those who wait.

Recently we tested VR for ourselves at a conference and followed with a survey. Fully 100 percent of respondents said they wanted to try VR again, and 91 percent stated our booth was either “impactful” or “extremely impactful” compared to others. Feedback included: “Creative, innovative, forward-thinking”; “it was one of the most innovative things I did at LMA”; and “it helped me get to know your firm better.” Other benefits included spikes in web, social and millennial resume traffic. (For more on how this technology influences millennial career decisions, see Dell’s recent Future Workforce Study.)

See You in Court

While early days, some litigators are experimenting. At a 2017 conference, Noel Edlin, managing partner of law firm Bassi Edlin Huie & Blum, presented a VR rendering of a San Francisco shipyard, captured using a 360 camera on an aerial drone, to illustrate VR’s potential. “In environmental litigation, details such as topography, tides and adjacent properties can be hard to fully render in 2D photos or film. With VR, suddenly you have a dramatically better understanding of how all the pieces work together.”

Recently, UK-based Spearhead Interactive created a VR visualization credited with helping to bring about a swift resolution to a multimillion-dollar insurance dispute related to a traffic collision. Stateside, Visual Litigation Support Firm High Impact just launched a virtual reality practice.

When it comes to VR’s use in court, there are few examples save for universities employing it in moot courts to train students, and a 1992 lawsuit, Stevenson v. Honda. (Attorney Jeffrey A. Dunn’s white paper on this case and general admissibility questions related to VR is a worthwhile read.) Most of those I interviewed for this article agreed that admissibility barriers will eventually fall.

“VR will eventually be a staple of visual experience in the courtroom,” says Brice Karsh, founder of High Impact. “But the key is, there has to be a benefit important to the facts of the case that you wouldn’t get with other types of media.”

Putting one’s science fiction hat on, it’s not hard to imagine scenarios where VR’s use will be justified in court. As hardware and content become mainstream, disputes will arise necessitating the use of the tech to explain the tech. Will Spielberg’s “Ready Player One” be both the first major motion picture released in VR (I’m speculating) and the genesis—if a dispute arises—of one of the first trials to employ the technology?