Law Desk (LD): Your invention on virtual crime scene technology has garnered incredible attention from all over the world. When you were working, did you expect it to be so overwhelming?
Mehzeb Chowdhury (MC): The idea was to innovate crime scene imaging technology and an objective way to capture the data. Usually, when a jury requires further information about a scene, in rare circumstances, they can be physically taken there. But, it is a logistic and security nightmare. I spoke to quite a few forensic science, and legal practitioners about it, and they all concurred that it might be time for an alternative. The issues lawyers and judges have with visual evidence is that, it might prejudice the jury towards a certain party. Due to the highly subjective nature of visual evidence today, 3D recreations, in general, run the risk of this.
My research was primarily inspired by NASA's Opportunity, and Curiosity rovers, and their ability to capture 360° panoramic images. Working as a Barrister, I found that 2D images in court presented a limited and ultimately incomplete representation of crime scenes. These images lacked the field of view to afford judges and juries an important decision-making tool — context. Simply owning the pieces of the puzzle is not enough. Stakeholders must be able to place the pieces in the overall picture, and make sense of it. To facilitate this, CSI's take detailed measurements, hand-draw or sketch crime scenes, and later create 3D reconstructions of crime scenes for presentation in court. The result is, however, a mere approximation of the truth, and not reality as it was on the day the crime scene was first processed.
Scene degradation occurs from the moment the crime begins and continues until the last officer turns off the lights and leaves the scene. Actions of suspects, witnesses, the first responding officers, EMS, the environment, and certainly those of the crime scene processor will result in the disturbance and alteration of the scene. Given this understanding of the inevitability of scene alteration, the basic goal of my MABMAT rover is to enter a crime scene, capture it in 360° and then produce unedited, out-of-the-box footage and stills that can be presented in court.
The fascinating aspect of the inception and execution of this robotic endeavour was that it occurred in just under two months. I had been fascinated by space all my life, and drawing inspiration from space-grade technology and implementing it in crime scene forensics was a project that I could not pass up. I designed and built the system in my garage with repurposed parts from France, Germany and China. After I had tightened the last bolt, and set the rover down, I realised that unless I made it public, I would not know how the world would react to this neoteric idea.
I wrote a short article in the highly-respected research publication, The Conversation, and within a few hours The Daily Mail, and Business Insider had picked it up. I got a call from Russia's state-run news agency Sputnik, and KGO 810 AM San Francisco, and was interviewed live on their respective Saturday morning slots. In a few days, The Times, The I, Digital Trends, Yahoo! News, Geeky Gadgets, Vocativ, and The Discovery Channel had featured it, with coverage spanning nine languages, in twenty countries around the world. Six major police forces from the US reached out to me expressing serious interest to adopt the system, and implement virtual reality in their evidence gathering and presentation routine. Prominent judges, lawyers and forensic science policymakers began a discourse about the technology and its uses, with debates sparking on Twitter, and in justice departments worldwide.
I even got a congratulatory note from NASA's Mars Outreach team for my innovation. I was invited by the largest science festival in the UK (Manchester Science Festival) and given my own virtual reality exhibit alongside Google, and the BBC. It was a massive honour, and I was proud to showcase my work in the presence of almost 10,000 people who attended this year's event.
Suffice to say that, I would not have dreamed of my rover getting such an incredible reception by the scientific and legal community. I'm incredibly blessed to have gotten the support of my parents to follow my dreams, and without them, I would be nothing.
LD: What might be some of the additional use of the robot you invented?
MC: The affordability and customisability of the system makes it ideal for other industries to utilise it. Filmmakers may use it to create immersive 360° videos and virtual reality experiences; real estate firms can implement it for virtual tours of properties; and the 360° imaging system may even be an invaluable resource in law enforcement and military operations where unknown terrain can be mapped, and assailants identified and their positions ascertained. The only limitation for the MABMAT's application, is the user's imagination.
LD: Despite having studied law, what made you opt for a forensic studies which so largely involves science?
MC: From a very early age, my inspiration has been Leonardo da Vinci — arguably the greatest genius in human history. While scientists like Albert Einstein are considered to be superior in terms of IQ points, Leonardo's brilliance was on a whole different plane. In his journals, we find designs for flying machines, tanks, solar power, early computers, hydrodynamics and a theory of plate tectonics, among a host of others. And, because he had no formal education, Leonardo had to teach himself every skill that he ever acquired. He was the model of the Renaissance man – and a true genius.
Reading about him and admiring every aspect of his work since I was a child, inspired me to follow in his footsteps. I have worked hard to understand the physical and theoretical aspects of our universe, through independent reading, as I have not been in a science class since eighth grade. Everything I know, and practice, except for law, is self-taught. And, if a regular joe like me can dream of being a Renaissance man, anyone with determination can do so too.
LD: What would you advise the students who want to follow your footsteps?
MC: Believe in yourself — even if the world does not. Think of yourself as a mountaineer making your way up to the heights of your life's aspirations. Climbing this mountain not only requires great perseverance, but also incredible patience. Every aspect in the physical world will attempt to keep you from reaching the top. You will stumble, and sometimes fall down, but the key is to never give up. Because once you reach the summit, more likely than not, you will find a taller mountain in front of you, and the profound question of whether to start climbing again. True visionaries look up, step forward, and commence the climb. Imitators look down, become disoriented, and fall unceremoniously to whence they came, or even far below that. Albert Einstein had it right: Life is like riding a bicycle. To keep your balance you must keep moving.
LD: Thank you very much for sharing your interesting ideas and inventions.
MC: It's my pleasure.