VR and AI in mediating victims and offenders

Two universities. One ambition. More social impact.

'We know very well what we do it for: to really help people move forward'

“We are particularly interested in how Virtual Reality (VR) and Artificial Intelligence (AI) can be used in mediation between victims and perpetrators of crime. In such issues, going to court is often the obvious choice, but this usually does not resolve and repair underlying conflict and needs. This leaves the possibility of further escalation and subsequent conflicts. Mediation can be a good way to permanently resolve these conflicts and technology can play a major role in this.”

In 2023, Charlotte Gerritsen (VU) and Sven Zebel (UT) received seed funding from the internal VU-UT call for their project  ‘How avatar-based VR applications can radically improve victim-offender mediation uptake and effectiveness.’ The project was conducted within the Creating Secure Societies impact coalition. They recently submitted an application to the Dutch Research Council (NWO) for a major follow-up project. The outcome will follow in early July.

Feel more heard

“We want to look at victims and offenders not only from a legal perspective but much more from a responsive way of dealing with people. For example, how do you make victims and offenders feel more heard and also come out of the conflict better together? The role of technology is very interesting but is still little used in the world of mediation. That's why we started this project.


Separately, we were both already interested in this topic. Following the VU-UT seed funding call, we started looking for like-minded people and found each other. The first contact was by e-mail. Like: are you interested in this basic idea and do you want to work together on it? Later, of course, we met in person. 


And then our internship began. That may sound irreverent but we don't mean it that way. It is primarily a way to get to know each other and to see if we are a good match in terms of content. Because you need each other's knowledge about technology and the various domains. We brought that knowledge and experience together. Sven in the field of restorative mediation, offender and victim behaviour and conflict management and Charlotte in the use of AI and VR environments to support or train people. 

Safe and realistic

In our project, we further developed an initial prototype of a VR application for mediation. Among other things, by writing scenarios based on real-life stories. Using a dialogue system, people go through a VR scenario based on a kind of decision tree with an avatar representing the other party. This allows people to practice conversations in a safe and realistic way. There was immediate support for it from professionals. They found it interesting and saw the added value. 

Two tracks

Through an NWO application we want to take the next step and develop this technique further and start using it structurally. We will do this in collaboration with Bureau Halt, Perspectief Herstelbemiddeling and Gevangenenzorg Nederland, among others. We will follow two tracks. In the first track we will further refine and expand the current VR application in terms of scenarios. In track two, we want to use AI to develop a highly advanced VR application in which the scenario is adaptive. This allows a victim or offender to have the most realistic conversation possible with the other party. In doing so, the avatar responds not only to content but also to aspects such as the manner of talking, intonation and nonverbal communication.

Increased opportunities

The ultimate goal of the project is twofold. People, after practice, become more motivated to contact the other party after a crime. Our expectation is that this increases the chances of actual mediation between victims and offenders. And if the latter fails because the other party is not open to it, through VR they can still experience some of the dialogue they would normally have had in real life.

Giving back conflict

In 40 to 60% of the cases in which mediation is offered to victims and offenders, it does not yet come to contact. This percentage is quite high, but we do not consider the obligation to mediate as an option. After all, the basic idea of mediation is that it is voluntary. That's the beauty of it and that's why it works well. You actually give the conflict back to the people themselves. This gives them the opportunity to respond to each other according to their own needs and in their own way and to handle or resolve what happened in a way that is right for them.

Move forward

In addition to all our other work, we really enjoy doing this. It just gives us energy. Because you can learn from each other and get an inside look at other disciplines. But especially because we know very well what we do it for; to really help people move forward. That motivates us enormously. We also notice this in the organizations we approach. They are all enthusiastic and willing to contribute.

Potential partner 

The seed funding is in any case a good initiative of the VU and the UT. And actually you can't do without it because you don't just find each other and you also need money to start new initiatives and bring them to fruition. Our tip - above all others - is: if you have a great idea, start looking for a potential partner. Once you've found one and there is a click, it all happens automatically, so to speak. Working visits also contribute to this. Going by bus and having a meal together creates a bond. A kind of school trip effect.”

Charlotte Gerritsen is an associate professor in Artificial Intelligence within the Computer Science Department of VU Amsterdam. She studied criminology and law, received her PhD in AI and a VIDI grant. Her research is at the intersection of AI and behavioural sciences.

Sven Zebel is a social and forensic psychologist working as an associate professor in the Department of Psychology of Conflict, Risk and Security at the UT. His research focuses on technology-driven conflict management methods and recovery-oriented interventions that contribute to the de-escalation and sustainable resolution of serious conflicts and events between citizens. Zebel is also a professor in mediation in the Department of Private Law at the VU.  

Does this story make you excited about the VU-UT seed funding? The 2024 call is still open up until 1 April. Check here for information, criteria and registration.