"Godmother of VR" Nonny de la Peña discusses the future of immersive journalism and VR technology.
Nonny de la Peña, the "Godmother of virtual reality" and founder of the Emblematic Group, has pioneered immersive, walk-around VR experiences for over a decade. Emblematic produced the first VR documentary, Hunger in Los Angeles, which premiered at Sundance in 2012. During a Convergence Keynote at SXSW this year, she talked about new advances in technology that will add a new dimension to the immersive journalistic experience while lowering the cost of admission. She showed clips of some of Emblematic's recent work, including a piece on solitary confinement produced in association with Frontline:
New tech lowers barrier to entry
Many new developments in VR are centered around 5G technology, (which is set to replace 4G) combined with advances in computing. As 5G technology improves, content creators will be able to use volumetric video to produce more and more advanced immersive experiences, as there will be increased processor speed available to create volumetric video's moving, 3D images. The availability of the new technologies, de la Peña said, will "give people an opportunity to make their own virtual reality. This idea for immersive, walk-around content is growing with cheaper, more powerful headsets hitting the market."
She spoke of her experience at Qualcomm last month, where she used the company's new Edge computing, which when combined with 5G speeds will change the way VR is produced and delivered: "The data isn't being stored in the goggles themselves. The data is being stored offline in 5G networks, and being streamed to your phone, in the same way that 4G streams data now....I was walking around, wireless, through a phone, in their lab."
Show what 5G can do
Her advice to would-be content creators? "People are really keen on, 'what kind of hard demos can we use?'...Don't be afraid to push the envelope. Don't be afraid to do some more data-intensive stuff. They're all looking for things to show what 5G can do." She also encouraged content creators to explore the low-cost options that already exist. "There's a real beautiful window right now. Go to RealityCapture, where you're taking hundreds of photographs and the program will stitch them together." She said she was looking forward to "watching the costs come down. I think that's going to be a big differentiator."
"Don't be afraid to push the envelope. Don't be afraid to do some more data-intensive stuff."
Because de la Peña's journalistic content produces such powerful emotional experiences, she said that she's had to put a lot of thought into the attendant ethical obligations. "When you make a doc film and are trying to offer people the ability to engage...you've got to work with the individuals whose story is being portrayed. With Kiya, I spent a long time talking to the sisters and making sure their story was being portrayed in the way they wanted to. It's always a balance."
On a similar note, in today's "fake news" world, there will always be considerations that go into the creation of documentary VR content. "We are really excited that we are starting to do real stuff more and more. There's fears of VR being fake, but we take b-roll [in traditional documentary filmmaking] and throw it into something just to cover a cut...nobody cares if the cloud that you're showing is the real one that was in that scene. We're in that moment where we're trying to figure it out."
She said that VR journalism shared many of the same concerns that occur with regular news. "How do you ensure accuracy, if I can recreate stuff that people think is real? We need critical thinking. We need to put money into education."
"Bad storytelling just isn't going to work. I think the embodied experience is going to work."
Overall, de la Peña stressed the vital importance of VR journalism, and spoke of recent work Emblematic had done capturing climate change in Greenland. "I just don't see people reacting the same way unless they're on the side of the glacier. It's a unique medium and I'm going to fight for my belief in it." But she also expressed interest in working on a VR piece inspired by the classic The Passion of Joan of Arc. "The trial records actually exist, it has a really nice historical, documentary possibility. Doing it in VR could be amazing."
Taking a question at the end of her talk about advice for content creators, de la Peña expressed optimism in the future of the medium, as well as the need for quality. "Bad storytelling just isn't going to work. I think the embodied experience is going to work." She added, "You don't experience your world as flat, you experience your world with volume. This medium is still waiting for content makers to come in and make it something special."