Genius Interviews

Nonny de la Peña, Emblematic: “It’s going to be up to us to educate people before they push that share button”

Nonny de la Peña has been called the ‘godmother of VR’. She talks to FEED about the power of VR to transmit real life experiences and ways of making VR creation more accessible

FEED: You started in traditional journalism, as a freelancer and then for major magazines like Time and Newsweek. How did you come to virtual reality and eventually the field of ‘immersive journalism’?

Nonny de la Peña: After years as a journalist, I did a number of documentary films. In 2007, I was working on a film while teaching myself to code. I got a grant from the Bay Area Video Coalition to take a sequence that featured the Guantanamo Bay detention camp and bring it into the virtual world. I wanted to continue the conversation around that issue and the result was the immersive project Gone Gitmo. Of course, the prison is still open – I should build that project again.

Building the art from scratch took a while, so we created the piece in Second Life. We used a heads-up display so you could take control of your avatar and that was a very unusual approach. Essentially, it puts you in a C-17 transport plane and then it puts you in the Camp X-Ray cage.

That project led me to start thinking about the ideas of using virtual environments to tell journalism stories. And that became my journey – thinking about putting people inside the story and thinking about body-ness, and what it means to have an embodied experience of a news story. 

More and more, you think about how you can put people on the scene. I always quote Martha Gellhorn, who was a reporter in the second world war; she called it, “the view from the ground. And that’s our goal, right? To put people closer to the story. I thought that we could use virtual reality to offer that connection.

FEED: The projects youʼve worked on since are all about pulling people into a perspective they might not normally have. Recently, for example, you did a film on the melting of the Greenland ice sheet…

Nonny de la Peña: Yes. Greenland Melting. There were also After Solitary, Project Syria, Out of Exile – which is a project on LGBTQ homelessness – a piece on domestic violence called Kiya, and there is a piece on the US border patrol about the death of a man who is beaten by the border patrol. I just did one with the National Butterfly Center, which is a place situated right on the Mexico/US border that faces losing up to 70% of its land if the Border Wall goes through. And at my company Emblematic, we’ve started a new project called Reach (reach.love), which enables people to assemble their own VR stories.

I use the same kind of journalistic practice that I used in films, but then am applying it to letting people be on the scene at an event. And the material that it’s based on is always very carefully researched and calculated to present it as it happened.

FEED: How can VR convey new things about these subjects?

Nonny de la Peña: A lot of climate change science has been very difficult to understand in a visual way. Many people think climate change is something that happens far off in other places and so can’t understand how the science affects them. 

What’s great about Greenland Melting is that it puts you on the side of a glacier as it’s melting. We also put you on a NASA aeroplane, with a guy literally dropping a tube down the back of the aeroplane through the toilet so it’ll land in the ocean so they can measure temperature. You feel like, when you’re standing there, it might as well be you dropping a thermometer down the back of the plane. And we did it in conjunction with two of America’s premier journalistic organisations, PBS Frontline and PBS Nova. 

To me, what that does is take a subject that was very inaccessible and make it very accessible, so that you can understand what’s happening. You’re literally standing next to a glacier as it recedes. And that’s probably the only way to actually get you to Greenland. 

After Solitary presented something that’s a very important issue for a lot of people, including prison wardens. You just can’t imagine what it’s like to be inside of the cell in solitary confinement unless you’re actually in it, so we created that experience.

Journalistically, these stories are ones that are difficult to convey without really giving people a sense of being on scene. I think that’s something that runs across all of these – how do we tell a story that’s very difficult to access and make it readily understandable? But I think that’s our job as journalists.

FEED: It seems like youʼre talking about giving people this full sensory and emotional experience. How do you juggle that traditional ideal of presenting the cold, hard facts, versus giving them something that’s sensory and emotional?

Nonny de la Peña: Well, those pieces are fact-based, with the same narrator for both. They’re issues that are covered by traditional media all the time. But this immersive experience kind of removes the middle man. 

The National Butterfly Center is an emotive place, but it’s got a very important factual story. It might lose 70% of its land if there’s a border wall. I think it can be really hard to imagine that unless you see how it goes along the banks of the Rio Grande. The Mexico/US border is so far away. And so are the streets of Aleppo, right? 

It’s difficult to imagine, too, why people become refugees, but standing in the street like you are as a viewer when you watch Project Syria; when you experience close to the kind of onslaught they’ve been exposed to there, you go ‘Oh, this could happen to me, too’. 

FEED: Do you see VR and immersive technologies being rolled out in a much broader way in the future, becoming a regular part of a newsroom’s production?

Nonny de la Peña: Absolutely. USA Today won a Pulitzer for its coverage of the Trump border wall project, which included VR. 

I was giving a talk last week and there was Hans Zimmer, who is a very famous film composer. He was in front of me as we were being introduced before I went on stage. He said: Film was the 20th-century medium. VR is the 21st-century medium. It’s the medium of the future. And that’s for sure. It’s just a matter of how it’s unrolled. And that’s why we built the Reach platform to make it really easy for people to make news content and distribute it.

I think we’ll see something in the future where AR glasses, VR glasses and
your phone will converge

There is still the problem of headsets, but back in 2010 I was working at University of Southern California as a research fellow, and there was a project that brought journalism students, business school students and engineering students together to try to create an app for news organisations. There was resistance to building anything for a smartphone. It was like, ‘Nobody has a smartphone. Why would you ever build a thing for a smartphone?’ Within a few years, there was no longer any obstacle to building a journalism platform on a phone.

I think we’ll see something in the future where AR glasses, VR glasses and your phone will converge.

FEED: Is news and journalism the killer app for VR? 

Nonny de la Peña: For me and you, since we’re both interested in journalism, probably. For many folks, they’re probably looking for an entertainment app or a game app. But gamers are growing up, and they’re going to expect their immersive content to go across all the media, from games to journalism. I think that’s going to be the expected. They’re going to want their entertainment, their news, their games, etc in an immersive format. The world isn’t flat, so why should media stick to being flat?

FEED: Can you tell us more about Emblematic’s new online platform?

Nonny de la Peña: It’s called Reach.Love. The point of creating that platform was that we had worked with Spectrum News and launched the piece on the National Butterfly Center at South By Southwest. And we wanted to start helping these organisations make pieces that were otherwise previously too expensive or difficult to produce. We wanted to make the technology more accessible.

We got a grant from the Knight Foundation because it’s also interested in seeing new methods of journalism made available. Right now, to make VR you have to learn C# and game engines, and we wanted to eliminate that. Anyone can go to the reach.love beta and play around.

The whole point of the website is to make it easy for people to make VR. You can grab all kinds of pre-made, and pull in 3D assets straight from other sites like Sketchfab, and assemble the components and actually make your VR story. 

Nonny De La PeñaWe need to make sure we have authentic sources that we can trust. And I think that we literally need trust campaigns for major media organisations, so that people can have renewed trust in their veracity.

FEED: How do you see the world of VR developing?

Nonny de la Peña: Our whole world is being captured in volume. Phones have two cameras on the back now so they can capture things in depth, so that they can capture the steps. And these tools are becoming more commonplace as a way of displaying our world with added volume. 

On a 3D asset site, such as Sketchfab, you can find a 3D model of absolutely anything. More and more people are putting things out, so objects are represented as they are rather than with flat photographs. 

To me, there are certain ethical questions that start coming up in VR. Because everything’s going to be captured with depth, are we going to let people see the bodies when we capture a bomb going off, or a disaster? Those are the ethical questions that we’re going to have to figure out. How do we tell these intense stories and have some kind of editorial stance that’s ethical and appropriate when our world can be fully captured with depth? 

Immerse yourself: VR films, such as Project Syria (above) and Greenland Melting (second image from top) offer viewers a chance to be ‘on the scene’ in locations they are unlikely to experience in real life

FEED: Because VR has the power to really immerse people in a situation, and the messaging is potentially much more powerful, is there a question about the ethical use of such an influential tool?

Nonny de la Peña: Well, that’s another ethical question that gets talked about a lot. I was on a commission with The Aspen Institute and the Knight Foundation on trust, media and democracy. It tried to deal with how you make sure that you have veracity with your sources and material. There are a lot of tools now for creating deep fakes, and it is a very thorny issue.

What we need is critical thinking. We have to teach critical thinking. We need to make sure we have authentic sources that we can trust. And I think that we literally need trust campaigns for major media organisations, so that people can have renewed faith in their veracity.

We also have to have transparency, and I think we have a need to figure out how we’re going to be more transparent in virtual reality. And then we have to have a population that believes they have a responsibility for how they share media, and for the truthfulness of the information they share. One study showed that it’s people aged over 50 or 60 who are sharing the most false information. And I think it’s because they have no literacy in this medium of the new technological age.

To illustrate the problem, I show pictures of Hillary Clinton when Osama bin Laden was captured and assassinated. It was being livestreamed back to the White House, and there’s a photograph with two women in the room – Hillary Clinton, and another woman in the back. And for a number of news organisations in the Middle East, they photoshopped out the women, because they didn’t want the women in the room with the men.

So the fake news problem is not a new one, and it’s not going to go away, but we need to be constantly vigilant. There was a great MIT study showing that fake stuff will hit the internet at a speed that is much greater than truth. So, it’s also going to be up to us to educate people about the issue of fake news before they push that share button. 

This article originally appeared in the April 2019 issue of FEED magazine.

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