Within a matter of weeks, virtual reality and journalism have linked up in a very public way. The New York Times launched a VR app and mailed out 1.2 million Google Cardboard headsets to viewers. Outside Magazine is about to send out another 75,000, which will help bring viewers from the comfort of their homes, to the rubble of war torn countries, into the lives of orphans, or to a far away place like Nepal.
There will be many think pieces to follow.
However, it should be noted that virtual reality and journalism didn’t just make friends in the past few months. Journalist Nonny de la Peña has spent the nearly last four years showing people, project by project, that the relationship is a natural fit.
“I see the beauty and the ability of the story to be evocative and evoke change and give people deeper understanding and make people better global citizens. The goal of journalism is to keep an informed global citizenry,” she said.
De la Peña is the founder and CEO of Emblematic Group, a company focused on immersive, journalistic storytelling based in Los Angeles.
She’s originally from California, and went to Harvard University where she majored in sociology and visual and environmental studies. She worked as a journalist for years, including as a correspondent for Newsweek.
After building a version of Guantanamo Bay Prison on Second Life eight years ago, she started thinking how VR could be used to tell news stories.
While collaborating on a project at the University of Barcelona, she got to try a piece dealing with the bystander effect that put the viewer in the middle of a bar fight. Since then, De la Peña’s worked to create immersive narratives in VR.
De la Peña’s first big project was called Hunger in Los Angeles. Using audio from real events, the piece takes the viewer outside of a Los Angeles food bank where a diabetic man collapses on the street waiting for food. The piece shows the effects on an overburdened food distribution system, and a reality where 1 in 6 adults in the US is hungry.
Hunger in Los Angeles took two years to build and $700 of De la Peña’s own money. The prototype she used came from USC’s Institute for Creative Technologies, specifically Mark Bolas, now-Oculus founder Palmer Luckey, Thai Phan, and Evan Suma.
The piece premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in 2014. Actor Gina Rodriguez, who won the 2014 Golden Globe for best actress for her CW show Jane the Virgin, stopped by.
“I didn’t know how people were going to behave and that moment when the goggles came off and she was bawling–you could hear her voice and it’s just like, ‘You’re crying, oh my God, you’re crying,'” De la Peña said, “That’s happened over and over again and that’s the moment where I’m like ‘I’m really on to something.'”
That was an important moment. De la Peña said she’s encountered a lot of naysaying, including from colleagues. At one point, she and her husband almost filed for bankruptcy. He’s a professor at Cal State, and after pay cuts, there was a tear-filled conversation, sitting at the table, where De la Peña questioned whether she should just give up and go get a “real job.” Her husband said “no.”
Not all colleagues are skeptical, though. Dan Pacheco is the Horvitz Chair in Journalism Innovation at the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University. He was also involved in The De Moines Register’s 2014 VR Piece, Harvest of Change, on the American family farm.
In talking about De la Peña, he referenced the old Apple commercial which showed pictures of people like Jim Henson and Albert Einstein and saluted “the crazy ones.”
“In the most positive way possible, I think Nonny is one of the crazy ones in that way,” he said.
Having gotten to know her, he thinks people will look back on what she’s doing and fully see her as an innovator in journalism.
“She’s kind of like an oracle. If you can get some time with the oracle, it will pay off,” he said.
In the time since Hunger in Los Angeles, and as people are coming around to the potential of VR storytelling, Emblematic group has produced pieces dealing with domestic violence, the Trayvon Martin case, the humanization of migrants, Syria, and more. Project Syria, for example, was commissioned by the World Economic Forum.
With all of these projects, reporting helps the Emblematic team turn real events into computer-generated VR versions. Use of Force reconstructs the beating death of an undocumented immigrant by border patrol, down to the people who were on the scene watching.
She now has a team of five, and Emblematic was accepted to the River VR accelerator in San Francisco, California in 2015.
“I’m a startup and that’s a scary but exciting place to be,” she said. Naturally, that means she does everything from edit audio, to code, to finding the time to take in other forms of storytelling for inspiration.
Of concern right now is finding a way to combine photo-real and computer-generated graphics. Otherwise, she continues to spread the word about VR and journalism.
On a broader level, she hopes Emblematic Group will one day have multiple teams she can dispatch to go out and report.
“A lot of what I do is letting the world know about the stuff we’re up to. But it’s also, I’ve got to keep working, keep going…there’s not enough of me,” she said.
In her own words…
How do you unplug?
“I had a car accident November 1st , so hopefully things are healing up. I used to rollerblade three times a week. But I am getting better. I am really hopeful. I was just at the doctor’s and he seems to think I’m about ready to give it a shot. And if I’m not skating, I’m watching funny pet videos with my sons before we go to bed. And I so love to read. I’m a book reader. I do love physical, old, print books… The other thing that just brings so much peace when I stop and I do it is painting. I’m not a good painter at all. I only get to do it so rarely. For me, that’s meditation.”
If you try another profession, what would it be?
“I don’t code full time at all. I barely code. Sometimes when I’m sitting next to someone in the office coding, I think ‘Gosh, I want more time doing that’ because it’s so satisfying. It’s like unlocking puzzles and things come into being when you do it right.”
What’s a VR experience you’re particularly interested in?
“There’s something coming out on the new Vive called Title Brush where you paint in the air. That is absolutely extraordinary. To be in the middle of your creation and to walk around is mind blowing.”