Representing the unfilmable: Nonny de la Peña on VR & ‘immersive journalism’

From a realisation that the digital sense of presence is a powerful thing, to being dubbed the ‘Godmother of VR’, Nonny de la Peña took us through her experiments in ‘immersive journalism’ at a recent lunchtime talk in Bristol, followed by a Q&A with DCRC director Mandy Rose.

It was an account of a ‘rape in cyberspace‘ that first drew Nonny’s attention to a digital sense of presence.  Part of the book ‘My Tiny Life: Crime and Passion in a virtual world’, the incidents took place on a text-adventure-style website through a script that forced other characters to do things, or have things done to them that were out of their control.

Although this was just text on a screen, the women still felt as if they had experienced a very real rape. This sense or presence becomes even more profound once visuals are added.

Thinking about embodiment within this scenario and within VR, Nonny commented: “We are almost hardwired to adopt this sense of presence as real, even though we are aware it is not.”

A sense of presence

The idea of using this sense of presence in journalism is not a new idea. Nonny referenced journalist Martha Gelhorn, who tried to create the sense of ‘being there’ with her ‘view from the ground’ journalism. This practice has continued through both print, radio and TV journalism to this day.

As technology – and the audiences digital literacy – has developed, journalists have continued to pursue new forms of storytelling. New ways to give the audience that sense of what the reality is actually like.

Nonny’s work with docugames like JFK Reloaded are within this field of experimentation and serve as a precursor to her work in VR. They play with our pre-conceived notions of what a news story should be and how it should be presented.

Filming the unfilmable

As Nonny continued the presentation, it was clear to see how her practice has developed into the ‘immersive journalism’ she is doing today. Following her experiments with docugames, she went on to make Gone Gitmo – a virtual representation of Guantanamo Bay Prison in Second Life.

Because of access, the story of Guantanamo Bay Prison is normally off limits for journalists, but by creating a virtual representation of it you begin to get that access.

Combine this representation with the FOI (Freedom of Information) reports Nonny attained about the use of stress positions on detainees in Guantanamo and the Sit Down Stand Up (IPSPRESS) VR experience is created:

It was this project that first gave Nonny an insight into the effectiveness of VR in positioning you – physically and mentally – in a situation.

Before the hype

Unfortunately this was in 2012 and the world-wide hype for VR hadn’t kicked off yet, the Oculus hadn’t been developed and no-one was really focused on the possibilities of this technology. So despite wanting to produce something else in VR, this time focusing on the issue of hunger in California, the funding for the project wasn’t granted.

In a testament to her belief in the power of the platform, she self-funded instead and went out with an intern to record audio at a food bank line in LA.

I speak from experience from watching Hunger in LA at Sheffield Doc/Fest last year – you get the physical sensation of what it was like on that street.

The body of the collapsed man becomes very real – you can see this with the people in the video below, who take care to not tread on the man, or even to try and support his head.

Of course you are very aware you are not there – you have this cumbersome headset on with a constant peripheral view of the room you in – but there’s this sense you’re in both places at once.

Sundance and beyond

Nonny took Hunger in LA to Sundance that year and was the first VR non-fiction work they had exhibited. People like Chris Milk saw it and Nonny credits this exposure to really helping invigorate the use of the platform for non-fiction storytelling.

It also gave Nonny the success and recognition she needed to finally get some funding to produce more work.

She received funding from AP/Google and Tribeca to produces Use of Force, a VR re-telling of the story of the homicide of Anastacio Hernandez Rojas, who was beaten and tasered by more than a dozen border patrol agents in the US.

Now the funding was in place, the next challenge – one that people producing work in VR are still facing – was how to get the work out. To reach audiences who aren’t at Sundance, aren’t in this experimental storytelling world and perhaps aren’t even consuming news.

SO Nonny took Use of Force to Buzzfeed, who used their reporters’ experiences of the Use of Force, as a way to tell the wider story:

Beyond the narrative,  the experience played with the feelings of helplessness and isolation in VR.

You can’t intervene, but what would you do if you encountered this situation in real life? Probably the same thing – try and film it.

“You feel like you’re in the TV news”

From here Nonny’s work in immersive journalism continues to expand; the World Economic Forum commissioned Project Syria, which was shown to delegates at the Davos World Economic Forum and was then installed in the V&A in London.

Afterwards, the curators at the V&A said they had never seen such an outpouring of comments from visitors before – Nonny showed us some – drawing attention to one in particular that said “You feel like you’re in the TV news” – the statement she has been looking for when producing this work.

A ‘my work here is done‘ moment.

Embodied / Digital / A new form of rhetoric

Of course Nonny’s work isn’t actually done – now people (funders in-particular) are taking her seriously and the audience is (almost) there, she went on to make a quick turn-around project in response to the Trayvon Martin story.

The narrative for the piece was built around the calls to emergency services on the night of the shooting and used some pre-built 3D images to recreate the scene quickly. A model that could be replicated for other ‘quick-response’ stories in the future, further legitimising the use of VR for reporting.

For now though, Nonny is working on a project with TEDxWomen and AJ+ America looking at experiences of women affected by domestic violence.

Governance and ethics

On the issue of governance and ethics within VR and journalism, Nonny commented: “It’s important to educate our audience in the same way we have for film and video. Where there’s been propaganda films released in the past, the same will happen in VR, we just need to keep having these conversations and remain critical”

She was also keen to highlight that on ethics, these are the same issues that have plagued journalism forever – truthfulness, accuracy, objectivity, impartiality, fairness and public accountability – VR is just a new platform for them to be played out on.

The emotional connection is enhanced by the enforced solitude and concentration – there’s no distractions when you have a headset on which is quite an experience these days.

“I’m a journalist – I need someone else to create that impact movement”

When leading the audience into these experiences, is there an expectation to offer something more once the experience is over? Nonny explained how they tried to do something after Hunger in LA, but there is an issue with journalism in the US where you can’t do advocacy – instead you need to frame as something people could do.

Following on from this, Nonny also stated: “I’m a storyteller/journalist – I need someone else to create that impact movement around the work.”

On the subject of agency within VR – should the audience be allowed to intervene in Use of Force for example? The issue with this is it could potentially allow them to alter the scene or change the story and if that happens, is that still journalism? Personally, I think it was certainly remove, or at least displace, the reality.


What next?

We are on the edge of a supposed VR explosion; consumer headsets are being released at the end of the year and with a relatively low price-tag attached, so the market for work beyond games (and probably porn) is wide open. Nonny finished the Q&A by discussing the future potential of the platform:

>>  360 degree video merge with mobile VR so you can have the experience of walking through and interacting with a real life scene.

>> Tech is there for multiple people to experience VR at the same time – but the logistics are not worked out – how do you control 6 people’s movements when watching Hunger in LA in the same space for example?

>> Project Tango – 2 years from now you will be watching these news stories in VR.

>> It has been predicted that by 2018, 25 million VR headsets out there – but the content pipeline is still relatively small. Will more non-fiction work develop? Will this be how we consume our news?

Further reading: Documentary Games: Putting the Player in the Path of History