When the virtual reality team at Axon was tasked with developing training modules to help law enforcement officers learn and practice de-escalation tactics, they knew their job was an important one. After all, the directive had come straight from Axon founder and CEO Rick Smith himself.
“Rick wanted us to explore not only how we train people to use our TASER devices, but also how we can train officers on tactics they can use instead of our TASER devices,” says Christian Kardish, VR product manager.
The team set to work on creating virtual reality training for law enforcement officers. The goal was to help them better understand how to interact with individuals dealing with certain types of mental and behavioral health issues, like schizophrenia, autism and suicidal ideation.
“What we really wanted to do was make the concept of crisis intervention more accessible,” Kardish says. “Not every officer can go through the 40-hour national certification program, but everyone can complete these 10-minute modules.” The modules cover everything from basic signs and stressors to fundamental de-escalation tactics.
Scenes from our VR module on suicidal ideation.
The team received a ton of positive feedback after releasing the first three modules for autism, schizophrenia and suicide. In addition to receiving over 260 million social media impressions in 2019, Axon’s VR product garnered attention from leading news platforms, Good Morning America and Nightline. In 2020, it was recognized as a finalist for Fast Company’s World Changing Ideas for Social Justice. Agencies are taking note; to date, more than 1,000 agencies have bought into the vision of VR training.
The accolade isn’t without merit. Axon VR Training creates an experience that features multiple views from both the officer’s perspective and the subject’s perspective. It’s developed in collaboration with subject matter experts (SMEs) who bring expertise and authenticity to each module — a process that takes up to 20 weeks to complete.
Ten modules of these Community Engagement Trainings are currently available and, by the end of the year, another seven will be made available. Axon has also recently launched a VR Simulator, where trainees have autonomy to practice and refine their skills in dynamic situations, speaking and responding naturally, with the ability to draw TASER energy weapons or training firearms should a situation demand.
Here’s a behind-the-scenes look at what goes into producing our powerful Community Engagement experiences.
Step 1: Establish learning objectives
The Axon team consults with partner organizations, customers, and training advisors to decide which topics demand fresh attention and how current events may impact what trainings become high priority for law enforcement in their work with communities. One example of that came during the upheaval in the summer of 2020.
“When protests began to overwhelm agencies and communities in the summer following George Floyd’s death, we adjusted our priorities,” says Mia Wong, VR content manager. “We researched the science behind peer intervention and looked into duty-to-intervene policies and how they are applied by law enforcement. Then we asked ourselves, ‘How can we present these challenges in a meaningful way?’”
Once the topic of the module is confirmed, Wong works with learning designers, agencies and SMEs to extract particular learning objectives that will drive the development of the scenario.
“That’s when we determine exactly what we want the learners to walk away with and which skills they’ll need to be successful out in the field,” Wong says.
Step 2: Create a script
The team works with SMEs to research and formulate an initial script concept — which amounts to roughly 40 hours of work in itself. Agencies, community advocates, and other mental health experts help the team gain a deeper understanding of how public safety professionals are addressing the issues today, and what can be done to improve those interactions. That information determines what body language, dialogue, decision points and even audio/visual details are written in the script.
From there Wong continues close collaboration with talented scriptwriters and SMEs to get the scene dynamics and nuances just right. In fact, the process of completing a script with dialogue and camera positions requires 50 to 100 hours of work with SMEs, which include current and former law enforcement officers as well as civilians who are personally connected with the topic at hand to weigh in on the story. For example, to ensure accuracy in the Domestic Violence module, she consulted domestic abuse survivors to ensure Axon’s VR is representative of authentic lived experiences to best prepare officers out in the real world. Axon also works with organizations doing work around the topic at hand, such as law enforcement support groups, brain research organizations, local health non-profits, and more.
After the details of the script are confirmed, actors are screened and hired, then invited to read their lines in the presence of experts to ensure their delivery matches the needs of training.
“Our goal is to make the training feel as immersive as possible — everything from the scene setting to the dialogue plays a huge role in whether or not an officer finds the experience realistic,” Wong says. “So we do this step a couple of times to ensure our scripts deliver the training outcomes necessary to help protect life.”
Step 3: Filming
The actual video shoot takes anywhere from one to three days depending on the complexity of the scripts. Scenarios are filmed using special equipment that enables seamless immersion in VR, such as video cameras with multiple lenses and audio tools to record spatial sound.
Axon’s senior training manager Lamar Cousins attends every shoot as a law enforcement advisor. Cousins’s 26 years of experience as a law enforcement officer trainer brings authenticity to the shoots, as well as a network of fellow law enforcement officer trainers who provide content development support.
“He is on scene with us during the entire shoot, ensuring that the actors are nailing the police stance, style, response, etc.,” Wong says. “He’s looking out for things that officers would notice later in their headsets that might distract from the learning outcomes. We want to eliminate any of those. Positioning and feel is a huge part of filming — not just getting done what we’ve written down but also making sure that what we’ve written actually looks physically accurate.”
The Axon team on set. Most filming is done at night in real locations using top-of-the-line 360 cameras.
Step 4: Editing
It takes anywhere from a few weeks to a few months to process the video after the shoot. This is when the takes are edited together, the sound and visual effects are layered on, and on-screen text is added to allow trainees to navigate from a fixed path to various branches of options.
All in all, it takes anywhere between 12 to 20 weeks to produce a single VR training module. The team works on multiple projects simultaneously, which allows Axon to release at least one new module to customers each month in 2021. Axon is also scaling its VR team to increase the cadence of new content releases while still hitting its rigorous quality standards.
Scenes from an upcoming module on Profound Agitation. Actors are coached on set about proper posture and position.
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