The stress of being a police officer is undeniable, especially in diffusing a sex trafficking situation. One mistake can spell danger for yourself and your community. In virtual reality, however, those mistakes can be reversed ー it gives you an “extra life,” so to speak. That is why Marco Zuniga is creating a virtual training simulator to guide this process.

On campus, Zuniga is a liberal arts and engineering studies senior. But at the California Cybersecurity Institute (CCI), he is in charge of user experience, user interface and virtual reality design. In the Camp San Luis National Guard Base, the CCI has set up real-world simulations of sex trafficking situations, but Zuniga’s project seeks to replace that.

“It’s not always easy to bring law enforcement to us, or to hire actors, or to set the whole thing up every time,” Zuniga said. “So I’m building a virtual reality version of that.”

The goal of the virtual training simulator is to instruct law enforcement on the kind of evidence they should gather at the scene of a sex trafficking front. On top of that, it teaches them how to search for the evidence in a safe way.

“It’s not like learning from a PowerPoint ー a picture on a slide,” CCI Business Services Administrator Danielle Borrelli said. “When you actually put on the VR goggles, you enter an immersive environment where you can actually see and experience the environment.”

In addition to the virtual simulation, Zuniga is also designing the user interface and user experience for a mobile application that serves the same purpose. Both of these programs are built through Amazon Web Services (AWS), an offshoot of Amazon that specializes in various digital services and partners with Cal Poly. He said his time spent with their virtual reality program, Amazon Sumerian, has given him the opportunity to become a lead tester for AWS.

“It’s such a new application, so there is a super small community that uses it. When I can’t figure something out or I have a problem with it, there is no help site,” Zuniga said. “There [have] been a few times that I was talking to them about something I was trying to do, and they were like, ‘Whoa, we’ll put that in the application as soon as we can. We never even thought of that.’”

Borrelli, who has been in the field for more than four years, said she empathized with Zuniga’s tackling of this challenge for the first time while taking on the virtual reality project.

“It’s one of the most horrific crimes in the world today when you consider what the victims actually go through,” Borrelli said. “The real emotional toll is when you begin to understand the gravity of the situation. But when you’re able to take the evidence and apply it to the situations and help others, it can be a very healing and empowering process.”

Zuniga recently received the Student Employee of the Year Award, which Borrelli nominated him for. Zuniga said this was a special honor for him as a first-generation college student.

“I’m extremely humbled and excited,” Zuniga said. “I didn’t even expect it. I didn’t even know I was being nominated until my bosses told me after that they did. I didn’t think my work was being appreciated that much, I thought I was just flying under the radar.”

Zuniga said he is now looking toward his future, as his time at Cal Poly is nearly over. Borelli said she has high expectations for his future.

“He’s a great individual and everyone who knows him loves him,” Borelli said. “He’s a really humble guy. He listens to your advice. He is very well-organized. He knows his limitations, but he works incredibly hard. His future endeavors are going to exceed his expectations. He is going to be a great aspect to any company he works for.”


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