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Episode 8 ● Part 2
Nonny de la Peña
Not so crazy anymore: the birth of VR journalism
Nonny de la Peña's first immersive virtual reality story Hunger in Los Angeles debuted in 2012 at Sundance Film Festival. In this video interview, de la Peña recounts the origin of this pioneering piece of VR journalism. Bringing this "nutty idea" to Sundance required extraordinary vision and resourcefulness, and benefited from a network of collaborators including Palmer Luckey, the founder of Oculus Rift.
De la Pena's story demonstrates that journalism plays an important role in shaping emerging technologies such as VR. De la Peña's journalistic commitment to accurate, timely, and important storytelling instills her virtual reality creations with meaning, humanity, and compassion and provides an important example of how the technology can benefit society. With VR gaining traction more quickly than even de la Peña herself expected, now is the time for journalists to guide the evolution of immersive storytelling. Fortunately, Nonny de la Peña is leading the way.
Pioneer. Journalist. CEO. Filmmaker.
A Harvard graduate with 20 years of experience as a journalist and documentary filmmaker, Nonny de la Peña has contributed to Newsweek, the New York Times, and Los Angeles Times Magazine, among many others. She is a graduate fellow at the University of Southern California’s Interactive Media Arts department, and currently engaged in exploring what she calls “immersive journalism,” incorporating video game platforms into journalism. As the CEO of Emblematic, de la Peña assists in the development and promotion of technologies necessary to achieve her goal.
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This interview with Nonny de la Peña has been edited for length and clarity.
Would you please introduce yourself and say a little about what you do?
By being on-scene I think you get a connection that [causes] some people [to] call this an empathy machine. Because when you’re on-scene in the story it almost feels like it could happen to you. I think that allows us to really understand something more quickly, more deeply. In the same way that if you were at a real event, by looking around you would understand a story much more than if you’re watching it through video broadcast print.
What does that mean for the journalism landscape? What does that do for journalism in a general sense?
We’re going to see more and more of this. Right now we’re still seeing a lot of 360 video, which essentially is still on a 2D plane. Google Maps, for example, just announced with Project Tango that it’s going to start scanning interiors of buildings. Why would they do that? Because you’re going to be able to walk around inside and outside locations. Intel and Qualcomm, their chips are going to allow you to scan environments and scan people very, very quickly. If I want to be on scene somewhere when an event has happened, and there’s someone with that chip they’ll scan it, and then I’ll be able to stand there and see it instantaneously. We, as journalists, will not have to build all new streets where an event happened. We’ll pop in the Google location, and then we’ll have to add our data on top.
You guys are way ahead, but tell me a little bit about where you are in terms of the tech, and what it requires for you to create the experiences that you’re creating right now. What goes into that?
Is it like light-field technology, volumetric?
Do you consider what you do with Emblematic to be journalism?
That gives you some idea of the diversity of the kind of things we do, but one of the things we’re best known for is our journalism. My background was correspondent for Newsweek. I’ve written for major news organizations like the New York Times, and the LA Times. We continue to innovate journalistic practice.
You guys are doing your own thing, but you’re also blazing a trail, and where that trail leads you kind of already spoke to. With your deep background in journalism why did you pursue this very technological and sort of developmental route?
After we made that piece it was the day where I was like, “Hang on a second. This could be used for all kinds of journalism.” Then I was invited into a lab in Barcelona where they were doing the walk around content. I had my first experience in that lab where they were studying the bystander effect. They put you in a scene where you’re in a bar, and one guy is drinking at the bar, and another guy walks in and he’s got the wrong sports jersey on. This guy gets off the bar stool and is ready to kill him. Suddenly you’re in the middle of this scene of this possible fight, and I felt myself straining on the headset cord trying to get closer to see what was going on. That was the moment where I was like, “Oh, my God. My whole body is in the story. I can never put my audience out there. I have to put them here in the story with me.”
With that I began to really investigate the possibility to be using it for journalism. I was also a research fellow at the journalism school at USC, and there was professor there named Sandy Tolan, who was leading a class called Hunger in the Golden State, and looking at how people were going hungry in California, and food banks were overwhelmed, etc. I thought, “I really want to do one of those VR pieces to really explain what’s going on.” I actually asked the class, “Does anybody want to do this with me,” and nobody raised their hand, so I ended up with a wonderful intern who had just graduated high school in Irvine, and came from a professor I met, her daughter. She and I started recording audio at food banks until one day she recorded a day where a man waiting the long line who had diabetes didn’t get food in time and he collapsed into a diabetic coma.
The audio was extraordinary, and she came back to my office, and she was crying. I was like, “That’s what I want to build with.” Again, this was considered a bit of a nutty idea, so I had no funding. I put out $700 of my own money, and I had to become a better coder, and learn how to be a Unity developer, and kind of beg and borrow favors. Infiltrate the labs that had the equipment. Two years later it got into Sundance, but the only headgear we had for looking at was called the Wide 5, and it was a $50,000 pair of goggles. The head of the lab was like, “You’re not taking those to Sundance.”
Fortunately, there was some pretty smart people hanging around. One was this kid named Palmer Luckey, and a couple of people whose names don’t get mentioned enough as far as I’m concerned. Ty Pham, and Bradley Newman, John Brennan. Together we had to cobble headsets. I showed up at Sundance with these duct taped pair of goggles, and they’re signed “Palmer Luckey”. I have some great photographs because Palmer crashed in my hotel room and drove the truck for me, and then nine months later he starts the Oculus Rift. Two years later the company sells for $2 billion to Facebook. After that I’m not so crazy anymore.
What does success or victory look like for your company?
Is that going to be a reality for most people soon, within the year?
If I’m a consumer five years from now, and I’m experiencing news in such an intimate way, do you imagine a more active, maybe a better informed readership?
If we’re scanning real objects for you to look at then people are getting literally closer to the facts, and they can take a look for themselves. I think that can really lead to a whole other leap in knowledge in the world. Of course, I know I’m optimistic, but I was optimistic when I tried to build Hunger for $700, and actually got there in the end. I do believe that by offering these kind of experiences we begin to leapfrog boundaries, walls, cultural differences, and take people into stories that they didn’t have access to before. The hope is that we’re going to have a more informed global citizenry, and I think that is the underpinning of democracy. That’s how we work together to make decisions in the world.
Is that your mission? What is the mission of Emblematic?
You kind of adjusted that in the middle saying to provide the model, which I get that sense from you that your mission seems to be blaze the trail, and then we’ll see what comes. Is that true? Is it like, “Let’s charge forward and see what happens”?
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