Virtual Reality may open up a whole new world for customs officials in training.

Customs NL is always looking for new ways of conducting its supervision and reducing the inspection burden for trade and industry. For this purpose Customs tests groundbreaking technologies, working methods and partnerships. By way of example, the service is currently investigating how Virtual Reality (VR) can enrich internal training modules in the future.

One of the strategic objectives of Dutch Customs is protecting society against products which are harmful to public health, nature and the environment or public safety. These items are discussed in specialist courses followed by customs officials. However, it is a problem that course participants do not see many of the discussed objects in reality; the teaching material often only includes photos and films of these objects. This is the case, for example, with many dual use goods – which both have a civil and a military application, and are therefore not allowed to be traded freely. For example, centrifuges for enriching uranium, which can be used for generating nuclear energy, but also for the production of nuclear weapons. It is almost impossible to present such high-quality and expensive technical equipment physically in a Customs course. The same applies to all kinds of endangered species of wild fauna and flora which are the target of illegal international trade networks. With a bit of luck a customs official may see such a protected species in a zoo or botanic garden. However, usually he can only see pictures or videos.

Nevertheless, it is certainly not inconceivable that in the future customs officials will be able to study such rare cases in a learning environment through Virtual Reality. It may be possible that course participants walk in a simulated goods shed with the help of smart optical devices, where state-of-the-art machines can be found that are used in the nuclear industry. Machines which can be observed from all sides, and which may even be easy to disassemble. It may also be possible to let customs officials travel to the jungle of Borneo with VR glasses to see endangered birds, butterflies and reptiles in their own biotope, even though this scene entirely consists of pixels. And who knows other senses can also share this sensation: a customs official may perhaps feel the texture of the skin or feathers of an exotic animal with specially padded high-tech gloves…

The above-mentioned applications could lift the training of customs officials to a higher level. After all, in a virtual world officials have the chance to gain experiences which they would miss otherwise. Thus, they may be able to recognise, determine and identify the most varied products more easily in the future when they encounter them in daily practice. This obviously also applies to goods with tax risks, such as some types of textile and footwear, which initially seem difficult to classify in a tariff group. For example, it may be possible to simulate the sampling of such items very well in VR. This would benefit a second strategic objective of Dutch Customs: promoting a correct and full payment of excise and import duties.

For the time being the use of VR is still a matter of the distant future for Dutch Customs. First of all, the possibilities and restrictions of the technique must be explored extensively, in cooperation with the academic world, for example. However, Customs is also seriously examining virtual shooting games. Various uniformed organisations – police, army – are already maintaining the shooting skills of their staff through so-called offensive shooting games. Customs is examining a defensive variant, because its armed officials are only allowed to use their service weapon in self-defence. When an acceptable alternative for training on the shooting range is found, this will lead to substantial cost savings: it will not be necessary anymore to buy dummy ammunition. However, it is an absolute condition that these applications are very realistic: if users do not feel the adrenaline it’s no good.

It is very likely that Dutch Customs will end up with very specialist software, which is not available on the market, but has to be customised. An option which seems worth considering is to attract game design students from creative colleges as trainees. They could exactly build the software in-house that is required in cooperation with technical experts of Customs. As mentioned before: these are only future scenarios for the time being. Nevertheless, Customs realises that Virtual Reality may become a fixed part of its training environment in the future. The new practical training centre of Customs, which belongs to the State Inspectorate Terminal (RIT) in Rotterdam and will be completed in 2017, will have flexible educational rooms. These have been designed in such a way that customs officials with VR headsets can move about as they wish.

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