Virtual reality is now an issue, which is more and more hotly discussed. This is to a great extent due to the fact of Facebook’s acquisition of Oculus VR in March 2014, which caused a burst of active reviews. Since thirty years ago, when virtual reality technology was first introduced to the broader publicity, this is the first time that this technology is so close to mass distribution. Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook founder, previously said about the role of virtual reality: this is “the next major computing platform that will come after mobile”.
Nonny de la Peña, the New York Times columnist and former journalist at Newsweek, is a strong supporter of the idea that virtual reality can change the course of documentary journalism. She is involved into relevant studies for already seven years. She also believes that virtual reality can provide film-makers with incredible opportunities for transmitting real-life events in the most natural and real manner than ever before.
De la Peña has already started working in this direction. One of her most successful projects are Hunger in Los Angeles (which was showed at the Sundance Film Festival in 2012) about food accessibility in the USA, and Project Syria about Syrian children (a special commission of World Economic Forum).
She talks about the process: “I start with eyewitness video, audio, and photographs and then carefully reconstruct an event with high-end animations, environment models, and spatial soundscapes to create a first-person experience of the events.”
De la Peña is so excited about the possibilities which are opening before journalism that she starts perceiving everything differently. “I knew I could never go back to traditional storytelling media like film or text. The intensity of the experience is so unique that I became permanently driven to tell important stories this way.”
An interesting fact: Nonny de la Peña was Palmer Luckey’s classmate (Palmer Luckey is a founder of Oculus VR). They studied together at the University of Southern California Institute for Creative Technologies. As a matter of fact, Palmer Luckey participated in creating Hunger in Los Angeles.
De la Peña even invented a new term for what she is doing: “immersive journalism”. She agrees that making documentaries using virtual reality technology is much more complicated, but rewarding at the same time. It’s important to effectively organize the work of staff – audio- and video designers, animators, 3D designers, etc. “Source material captured at real events is necessary to really make these pieces work,” Nonny says, “and that always takes a lot of time and effort whether you are using traditional news platforms or virtual reality.”
Working with virtual reality often arises moral dilemmas as well (although the same is true for ordinary journalism). “We reporters need to make sure that best journalistic practices are applied in making these pieces, and that audiences are taught to approach VR using critical thinking,” acknowledges de la Peña.
As it frequently happens, a lot of criticism was expressed by many. The main argument is that so far virtual reality is only applied and very closely connected with computer video games. De la Peña’s counterargument is assonant with what Zuckerberg said – that VR is no longer an application for computer games solely; it can be actively and effectively used in the other areas as well. “The decline of newspaper readership and the rise of video games in culture have softened attitudes about immersive journalism and the possibility of using virtual-reality platforms to reach new audiences. The ideas I’ve pioneered and the techniques I’ve employed seem to be gaining widespread acceptance,” de la Peña adds.
The journalist sees the new perspectives rising before documentary films industry. “For many years, it was a bit lonely out there for me as one of the only journalists building immersive news stories in this way,” de la Peña says. “Now that there’s interest, it’s exciting to see others joining my field.”
Moreover, some new projects are on their way, as de la Peña now works on several commissioned projects. She says, “After so many years of pushing these ideas up a hill, it is astonishing how quickly it is all now moving.”