Before there were impressive digital 3D movies in every theater, before Google cardboard existed or virtual reality immersion headsets, Nonny de la Peña was an investigative journalist who coded at home after work.
That "hobby" led de la Peña to change the face of journalism — and helped push virtual reality into the mainstream — with "Hunger In L.A," which premiered in 2012 at the Sundance Film Festival. The piece, which chronicled homelessness in L.A., was the first immersive journalism feature film to ever be shown.
De la Peña has worked in various mediums but wanted to explore the dimensions of storytelling beyond documentary film and the written word.
"With VR, you are experiencing it with your entire body and your mind and the whole thing comes together, and thats the way that we experience the real world," said de la Peña, who founded Emblematic Group, an immersive media company.
This year at SXSW, de la Peña exhibited two VR films: "After Solitary," a partnership withFrontline which shares the feeling of being in solitary confinement in a Maine prison and won SXSW jury award for Room Scale VR, and "We Who Remain," which chronicles the forgotten front lines of the uncompromising war in Sudan. Beyond these pieces de la Peña has also produced interactive films including "Project Syria" and "Across The Line," detailing the inaccessibility of women's healthcare in different states.
All of these topics are heart-wrenching, complex and particular situations that many people will never experience — which is why de la Peña is drawn to use an immersive medium like VR.
"I think that these are places that are inaccessible for most people and so how do we get them to understand these important issues? VR seems to be the best medium that I've ever worked in to do that," said de la Peña. "If you feel like you are there then you feel like it can happen to you too."
As the "godmother of VR," de la Peña has seen the technology in this space go from simplistic to realistic. When de la Peña started making VR, she was using video-game-like imagery and headsets with thick wires that needed to be carried behind the viewer. Now she works using a new process called photogrammetry, which utilizes actual photos. For example, in "After Solitary," viewers are taken inside a real solitary confinement cell, which allows for them to experience how it feels to be locked in a seven-f00t by nine-f00t cell.
She's also watched the field develop with new companies and fresh ideas . When she making "Hunger in L.A.," de la Peña enlisted a UC Berkley student who was making a new kind of VR goggles in his garage. Though they look basic now — the goggles were cumbersome and duck-taped — de la Peña asked him to bring them to Sundance for the premiere. (She was not allowed to travel with the only pair of $50,000 goggles that Berkley had at the time.) A few years later that student, Palmer Luckey, founded Oculus Rift — you might have heard of it?Facebook bought it for over $2 billion back in 2014.
These are just a few of things that have changed in the decade that de la Peña has been making virtual reality — who know what dimension we will head to next.