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UMD, Google Unit Partner on Developing VR Training Platform for Police

New Research a Highlight of Inaugural ‘Beyond the Field’ Homecoming Address

By Liam Farrell

Rashawn Ray teaches in classroom

Professor Rashawn Ray teaches about anti-bullying interventions in an undergraduate sociology class Monday. Ray delivers the inaugural "Beyond the Field" Homecoming address about his research Sunday.

Photos by John T. Consoli

A new partnership between the University of Maryland and Jigsaw, a unit of Google, will create groundbreaking virtual reality training for police officers to learn and evaluate de-escalation and communication skills.

The ongoing development of Jigsaw’s “Trainer” platform, announced Monday, will include new studies and input from four higher education institutions, including UMD’s Lab for Applied Social Science Research. The lab is led by sociology Professor Rashawn Ray, an expert on systemic bias and racism in policing who will deliver the inaugural “Beyond the Field” Homecoming address on Facebook Live during halftime of Saturday’s football game.

“This program is going to completely revolutionize police training, to put officers in a safe environment where they can aim to get better and more objective,” Ray said.

Interactions between police and the general public and the disproportionately fatal consequences suffered by Black Americans have become major flashpoints following the deaths of Freddie Gray in Baltimore, Breonna Taylor in Louisville and George Floyd in Minneapolis, among others.

Rashawn Ray teaches in classroom

Jigsaw, which works to develop technology to address issues such as disinformation, censorship and violent extremism, developed Trainer in consultation with experts from across academia, law enforcement and civil rights groups. In a demonstration livestreamed on Monday, company officials showed how a trainee can don a virtual reality headset and controllers to interact with digital environments and avatars. Participants can move objects like a baseball bat out of a house and conduct interviews while supervisors watch and keep track of their performance; for example, the user during the demonstration was critiqued for failing to adequately identify himself before questioning a resident involved in a possible domestic dispute.

“We wanted to demonstrate how technology could be a possible solution to the ongoing conversation of public safety,” said Sameer Syed, Jigsaw’s partnerships and business development lead. “You can merge technological innovation with cultural dimensions as well as impact for civil rights and social justice.”

In addition to UMD, Morehouse College’s Culturally Relevant Computing Lab & National Training Institute on Race & Equity, the University of Cincinnati’s Center for Police Research and Policy, and Georgetown Law’s Center for Innovations in Community Safety will have access to the platform to measure its efficacy, identify opportunities for use and integrate it into further policing studies. Ray, also a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, said UMD will be working with computer scientists on and off-campus to further integrate physiological measurements of heart rate, eye movement or even cortisol levels to understand how a police officer is reacting.

The work on Trainer, he said, is another key demonstration of how research can be applied to impact the real world, the focus of his Saturday address. Ray is also working with AT&T to develop an anti-bullying effort and this week released a report with colleagues at UMD and Brookings analyzing how to respond to racism on social media like Twitter and Reddit.

“It’s important as professors and scholars to think innovatively, to bring together social science and computer science, industry, the think tank world,” he said. “Research can really be used for good. It’s not simply about doing research for research’s sake.”

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