Nonny De La Peña: The Godmother of Immersive Storytelling in Virtual Reality

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Photograph by Jeon Han for the South Korean Ministry of Culture

Let’s talk about Nonny De La Peña.

In an age when Journalists are still playing with the idea of virtual reality, when virtual reality headsets like the HTC Vive are collecting dust in various editorial offices, and when publishers are gathering the best minds around the globe to figure how to squeeze every last buck out of this fascinating new invention, one woman had been producing quality work in Virtual reality before the phrase even reached the Mainstream.

Nonny De La Peña found her humble beginnings with the Immersive Journalism lab at the University of Southern California. In 2010, two years prior to the showcase of the Oculus Rift on Kickstarter, De La Peña had already finished her first immersive storytelling project called Gone Gitmo, A video game she produced that showcased the lives of Guantanamo Bay Detainees from their capture and their future in the camp.

“Guantanamo is physically off limits to most citizens and press. Keep a topic out of sight, and it stays out of mind,” said De La Peña, “So in the face of a real but inaccessible destination, we felt like second life offered a chance to build an accessible, albeit virtual version.”

For a project finished on the budget, manpower, and technicalities of college students, the end result was incredible. The multi-media project featured actual voice clips from Guantanamo Bay guards, real life footage shot by the American Government, as well as testimonies from the prisoners of Guantanamo Bay themselves. Although Gone Gitmo did not kick off as much steam as De La Peña had hoped it would, it did put her name above water enough to green light her next two projects.

In 2013, De La Peña released her first VR project Hunger in Los Angeles, a simple project that showcased a real story: While waiting for the blocks-long-line for food aid in Los Angeles, a diabetic man’s blood sugar had dropped so low that he collapsed into a seizure. De La Peña and her colleagues used this piece to explore the problem of growing hunger through out the United States.

Albeit the project’s relative shortness, De La Peña showcased the possibility of building an emotional connection with the subjects in her project. Senior Verge Reporter Bryan Bishop wrote that he was dumbfounded after the experience.

“As I took my headset off, I was quiet; shaken. I asked De La Peña about the diabetic man’s fate, and he assured me he had survived the attack,” wrote Bishop in his beautifully titled piece “Digital Empathy: How “Hunger in Los Angeles” broke my heart in a Virtual World.”

“I was frankly surprised at how much I cared,” wrote Bishop.

Picking up on her previous successes on provoking serious and fierce emotions from her multi-media virtual reality pieces, De La Peña went on to produce Project Syria, the chronicles of a young family escaping the Syrian Civil War. (This project will be described in detail in the near future)

De La Peña fashions herself as an immersive journalist. I am hesitant to agree on the journalist part. Her work, albeit its effectiveness, seem to be constantly pushing some form of agenda. As journalists, all we really can and should do is to present the appropriate information and let our audience decide their best course of actions. Any more than that and we drift into the realm of advocacy. From everything I’ve seen her done so far, she drifts closer into the realm of advocacy than actual journalism.

However, none of this criticism should take away from how revolutionary Nonny De La Peña’s work is; she is a true pioneer into this new era of information distribution. Her projects are thought provoking, and even through its rudimentary qualities, we can see the power in VR to inspire emotions never experienced before interacting with other forms of media.

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