Anyone wishing to relive the drive-by shooting of Notorious B.I.G., aka Christopher Wallace, can do so later this month through the true crime augmented reality app, CrimeDoor.
The upcoming release will coincide with the 24th anniversary of the Brooklyn native's murder outside the Peterson Automotive Museum, where he was attending a Vibe Awards after-party. CrimeDoor will also be releasing a door into the murder scene of rapper Tupac Shakur, Notorious B.I.G.'s West Coast rival.
The app has a number of new additions slated and has seen users surge since it paid $1,000 to Olivia Snake, a true crime TikToker with 1.1 million followers, to promote it in mid-January, founder Neil Mandt said. Before that point, about 11,000 people had downloaded CrimeDoor since its October launch; in the subsequent 72 hours, 60,000 more piled in.
Over the last six weeks, Mandt said CrimeDoor has been downloaded 220,000 times. Even as it faces criticism from victims' rights advocates, it climbed as high as number four among news apps on the iOS App Store, which uses an algorithm to rank apps based on factors including downloads and user engagement.
Those data were confirmed by third-party analytics firms Apptopia and Sensor Tower.
"We hit the market [with the TikTok influencer], we got a lot of publicity, we saw immediate growth," said Mandt.
CrimeDoor allows users to explore unsolved crime scenes recreated with augmented reality (AR). The app opens onto a map that shows users nearby historic crime scenes. Each crime comes with a case file that includes a list of articles, documents, photos, audio clips and videos curated by crime journalists and researchers. For an additional fee, users can explore select crime scenes via AR environments the company creates with Unity, a gaming engine.
Mandt, a Hollywood veteran and true crime enthusiast, said CrimeDoor now has around 700 case files, comprising about 60,000 total hours worth of content, and that at least three new cases appear on the app every day. There are currently 20 "doors" — augmented reality portals through which users can enter various crime scenes — which will increase by about one per month, Mandt said.
A local NBC station in Arizona ran a segment in December highlighting concerns that the app exploits victims. Mandt responded that they are only sharing facts, and not glorifying violence.
The company maintains it can actually help victims' family members who want to bring new light to the unsolved crimes that stole their loved ones.
But not everyone may want that. Ferroll Robin, executive director of L.A.-based Loved Ones Victims Services, lost her brother to homicide.
"This is a very sensitive issue," she said. "[CrimeDoor] could trigger all kinds of emotions that families and loved ones have kind of moved past, so this could actually re-victimize them in a sense." Some families might see CrimeDoor as helpful, she said, "because they want their crime solved so bad." On the other hand, Robin reiterated, "I've had clients say 'I don't even want them found at this point,' because they've already dealt with it and moved on with their life."
Mandt pointed to families of two unsolved murder victims who have helped build out their respective crime door scenes on the app.
Kelsi German, sister of Libby German, one of two victims slain in Delphi, Indiana, in 2017, has given CrimeDoor details on what her 15-year-old sister looked like at the time of her murder, and the murder scene itself, Mandt said. Family members of Rebecca Zahau, murdered in Coronado, California in 2011, have also helped build out an AR re-creation.
"The awareness on those cases has significantly jumped, as a result of our efforts," Mandt said.
As CrimeDoor continues to release new material, Mandt and company partner Paul Holes, a former crime investigator, think the app can help crowdsource valuable information for cracking unsolved cases. Holes formerly worked on the Golden State Killer case, which was ultimately solved after decades of empty leads thanks in part to true crime enthusiasts who conducted their own investigations.
Mandt said he is expecting soon to partner with media companies interested in giving viewers an opportunity to dig deeper into crimes they feature on their programs, pointing to a hypothetical example of Dateline NBC. He previously told dot.LA that such an arrangement would involve a revenue share; he did not cite specific partners but noted that announcements should be forthcoming.
CrimeDoor is free to use, but accessing a door costs $1.99. Users can also purchase unlimited door access for $4.99 per month. Mandt would not say how much money the company has earned but noted that 7% of users make a purchase, suggesting about 15,400 of the 220,000 downloads over the past six weeks brought in some cash.
Influencer marketing has been key to the app's rise, Mandt said, noting that the $5,000 or so the company has spent on that channel represents the vast majority of its advertising expenses.
After Snake shared the hype clip on her TikTok, other influencers chimed in, for free. A YouTuber who goes by cjades, with 287,000 subscribers, narrated a side-by-side walkthrough of a crime door, saying, "I thought this was absolutely insane and I thought I have to make a video about this." That video, Mandt said, captured about 40,000 views over the next several days.
- CrimeDoor, an immersive augmented reality app launched last week, is straddling the space between mystery entertainment and crowdsourced crime solving.
- The app was conceived by Neil Mandt, a longtime film and TV producer-turned-tech entrepreneur. A true crime enthusiast himself, Mandt said he saw an opportunity to merge the popular genre with immersive reality.
- The AR environments are constructed based on real crime scene photos, police reports and eyewitness accounts.
A new augmented reality app launched this week allows anybody to feel what it's like to explore a murder site as it appeared right after the crime occurred. They may even be able to help crack an unsolved crime.
The app opens onto a map that shows users historic crime scenes in their area, using GPS data. Each crime comes with a case file that includes a list of articles, documents, photos, audio clips and videos curated by crime journalists and researchers that is meant to provide an organized synopsis of "the 5 w's and h."
CrimeDoor was conceived by Neil Mandt, a longtime film and TV producer-turned-tech entrepreneur. A true crime enthusiast, Mandt said he saw an opportunity to merge the popular genre with immersive reality, an industry he's been increasingly involved in over the last few years and which he believes is "on the verge" of explosive growth.
The AR environments are constructed based on real crime scene photos, police reports and eyewitness accounts using CrimeDoor's patent-pending technology and Unity, a gaming engine.
Users can explore the crime scene using their mobile devices at the real, physical location when feasible, or with a joystick navigator from their own home. They'll see the scene as it was reconstructed, and can "pick up" evidence and enlarge it on their screens for closer inspection.
At launch, the app will contain about 500 cases and dozens of virtual doorways, Mandt said. Cases are free, but the app charges $1.99 to enter a door, or a monthly fee of $4.99.
Some of the cases are famous, such as the murder of OJ Simpson's former wife Nicole Brown Simpson or the shooting of John Lennon. But, Mandt said, most will not be as familiar.
One such case is that of Rebecca Zahau, a woman whose 2011 death in Coronado, California was ruled a suicide. The family contested the cause of death and filed a wrongful death lawsuit. Zahau's family has provided CrimeDoor with materials such as court documents and autopsy photos. A perpetrator was charged in a civil trial – not a criminal one – and Mandt said the family wants to bring the case back to light and give the public a chance "to look at it."
Mandt also noted he has heard great feedback from both user test groups and law enforcement agencies.
"The average detective has one hour on a crime scene and later a couple of photos and a matchstick and a hairy sock," Mandt said. "We have shown this to the FBI and law enforcement departments and without exception everyone compared it to DNA. The way DNA changed the game, this will do the same."
According to a company representative, a retired criminal investigator who helped to solve the infamous Golden State Killer case called CrimeDoor "a game changer for cold cases around the world."
UCLA law professor Eugene Volokh, who has studied and written about the intersection of AR/VR and law, told dot.LA that CrimeDoor should be wary of potential issues such as libel or needlessly upsetting a victim's family members. He emphasized, however, that such concerns are no different than those faced by any true crime storyteller, regardless of the medium.
"Generally, there are no legal or ethical problems raised by an AR or VR app as opposed to a documentary or a book," he said.
Mandt, who is self-financing the app, sees partnerships with media companies as a big opportunity for future growth. He said an organization with legacy crime footage, such as "60 Minutes," could partner with CrimeDoor to build out the AR crime portal, re-air the legacy footage on television, then direct viewers to the app and share a cut of the income.
"I'm interested in where the social web goes and how other AR leaders come to us and say here's how we can collaborate," he said. "The tech community, I'm excited to see what kind of creative things they can do with this. And Hollywood – producers will look at this and come to us."
Mandt also hinted at potential expansion by augmenting the user experience with sounds and technology that stimulates a user's sense of touch. He's also considering adding a marketplace to sell merchandise and implementing a credit-earning system to allow for add-on experiences, such as a ride-along in the OJ white Bronco highway chase.
Down the line, CrimeDoor may incorporate advertising, Mandt said. The app may also eventually incorporate premium content, such as access to movies, shows and books related to a given case.
Sam Blake primarily covers media and entertainment for dot.LA. Find him on Twitter @hisamblake and email him at samblake@dot.LA