Embodying the News through Virtual Reality

23 April 2015

Immersive storytelling is becoming a reality through new devices allowing journalists to tell stories through stereoscopic 3-D, 360-degree visuals, and a 100-degree field of view. This is the journalism that excites Nonny de la Peña , “the Godmother of Virtual Reality,” who, as CEO of Emblematic Group, uses cutting edge technologies to tell stories—both fictional and news-based—that create intense, empathic engagement on the part of viewers. At the GEN Summit on 17 June, Nonny will be demonstrating how virtual reality can become a mass media. Here is Nonny in conversation with GEN. 

How did you come to work in Virtual Reality? Could you tell us about your first project? 

Eight years ago, after building a virtual Guantanamo Bay Prison in Second Life with artist Peggy Weil, I began to think of how virtual reality could be applied to other important news stories. Soon after we were lucky to collaborate with Mel Slater and Maria Sanchez Vives at the Event Lab at the University of Barcelona on a piece that put people “in the body” of a detainee in a stress position in order to offer a visceral report using FOIA released documents on the way we tortured prisoners.  While at their lab, I saw another powerful piece they had created in order to study the bystander effect which put you in the middle of a bar fight.  That was when I realised the power of creating pieces which put audiences on scene using VR goggles and full tracking.  After that, I have focused exclusively on using virtual reality for important narratives. 

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Project Syria showcased at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London

In 2012, you were already at Sundance: how did VR change in the past three years, technologically?

With the sale of Oculus to Facebook, there has suddenly been a huge interest and investment in all of the technologies surrounding virtual reality. New headsets for mobile, like the GearVR, are just the beginning of what is bound to be a revolution in lightweight viewers connected to mobile phones.  Also, many new software solutions are also becoming more prevalent, both for making 360 video stitching easier and cg elements easier to scan, build and animate.

Has the audience's reaction changed over the years? 

 If you call the general public's acceptance of VR a "reaction", very much so.  I like to call it "before the sale" and "after the sale”. When Oculus was purchased, I texted Palmer Luckey to say thank you because I knew that suddenly virtual reality was about to undergo massive change.  However, the audience personal reaction has not changed in the sense that it virtual reality can be a visceral experience and well-made pieces blow people's minds.

Could you describe Project Syria? How did you build it?

The World Economic Forum commissioned Project Syria.  Elizabeth Daley, Dean of the USC School of Cinematic Arts, brought the head of WEF, Klaus Schwab, to experience Hunger.  He took off the goggles and commissioned Project Syria on the spot.  But I really ended up with only about six weeks to build from scratch in order to make the January Davos deadline and it was all done at a level of intensity that I hope will be a rare occurrence. Not only did I NOT have the luxury of time with Project Syria but the furor of the events also caused tremendous problems. For example, I reached out to a photographer to potentially hire him or utilise his existing archive and twenty minutes after I sent the email, word came across Twitter that he had been kidnapped.  All of this was happening while the aid agencies were calling Syria the worst crisis of our life time – and I needed to make the piece convey that urgency to the level of world leaders who attend WEF.  I can tell you, the pressure was intense but once again, we succeeded beyond my wildest imagination.

Can Virtual Reality become a mass media? What are the steps towards that?  

Virtual reality, as a journalistic medium, will follow a similar trajectory as newspaper, radio and television. And like those different platforms, virtual reality has its own affordances, the most exciting being the embodied feeling of being “on scene”. This can give the audience a deep and more visceral understanding of a story.  As the gear becomes lightweight and as easy to use as putting in earbuds, it will become a mass media.

How about devices: will VR still be as expensive? Is Google Cardboard a good solution? 

Cardboard is a very cool bridge.  My guess is that we will have three tiers of experience.  The first will be through a mobile phones and the experience will have a similar quality to watching a YouTube video. The second will be a living room experience, connected to a fast computer and viewed using something like an Oculus Rift. The third will be an high-end location based experience where folks will go to a specially equipped theatre to have full walk-around experiences.  This is akin to an Imax theatre now.

What would that mean for the way journalists would work?  

Journalists will need to use all the best same practices as they do now for reporting on a story, but with a constant awareness of how to construct the piece in a spatial narrative as their story will happen all AROUND the viewer, much as if the viewer has become the journalist. Then they will need to work with other skilled folks much in the way they have in past, and still do in the present.  It’s just now that the editors, graphic artists, producers, developers, and programmers will be focused on VR instead of print or video. 

How about newsrooms: how many people do you need to set up a team? How can newsrooms start experimenting with VR? 

Honestly, my team is small.  Yes, they are very, very skilled but we were able to create the Trayvon Martin case in two weeks with just one person working full time and two others part time. Of course, the reporting and data collection was already done as it was totally based on the 911 tapes.  But it is a good example of how we can easily make pieces that fit the news cycle.