Inside an unmarked white building in Santa Monica, Calif., Nonny de la Peña and her company Emblematic Group are settling into their new lab. After jumping from location to location, the company now has a place to call their own—a promising sign since de la Peña and her team need room to create the future.
In a building the size of a two-story studio apartment, Emblematic Group crafts virtual worlds without borders. When I visited de la Peña and her team in August, they were working on a virtual reality (VR) project for the Formula 1 Singapore Grand Prix car race in which not only one, but two “players,” can experience what it’s like to be in the pit crew and race each other.
Hanging inside the lab are wires connected to computers, Post-It Notes stuck to the wall, virtual reality headsets lying on the floor, and two black racing seats hooked up to the computers and headsets.
While the racing seats remain motionless, the people sitting in them are not as de la Peña and her team steer the journalism industry into its next lap with their use of immersive storytelling.
Meeting the “Godmother”
If you do a quick Google search of immersive or VR journalism, you’re likely to find de la Peña’s name or her work in nearly every link. She’s been dubbed the “godmother of virtual reality,” and with good reason.
De la Peña’s journalism career started like many others—in print. She was a correspondent for Newsweek in the late 1980s and early 1990s, but left the magazine because it didn’t allow her to use the visuals she imagined for a story. After working as a documentary filmmaker, the itch still wasn’t scratched, she said.
It wasn’t until a trip to Barcelona, Spain when de la Peña found her calling. She put on a pair of virtual reality goggles, and “Once I saw that experience, I couldn’t put people out there again,” she said pointing away from the table inside Emblematic Group’s new lab. “I want to bring them inside the story.”
From there, de la Peña began working with virtual reality in journalism, finally scratching that itch. Her first VR project, called “Hunger in Los Angeles,” which illustrates what it’s like to go hungry in L.A., premiered at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival and received raving accolades.
Her partner for the project was Palmer Luckey—the 23-year-old creator of the Oculus Rift headset. In 2014, Luckey sold the VR platform to Facebook for $2 billion; a sale that de la Peña says legitimized VR and brought the technology to the forefront of the news media conversation.
When E&P visited Emblematic Group’s lab, I had the chance to experience some of de la Peña’s VR pieces.
In one, I was instructed to sit in a swivel chair. “It’s better that way,” Julie Young, a producer for Emblematic Group told me while she connected her smartphone to the Samsung Gear VR headset. I pulled on the goggles and watched as a new world appeared before me.
It was a scene from “Kiya,” a collaborative story between Emblematic Group and Al-Jazeera America. I stood near a woman on the phone with 911, who was telling the operator her sister, Kiya, was inside the house with her ex-boyfriend. He wouldn’t let her leave and he had a gun.
I was able to turn 360-degrees (the swivel chair was great for this), observing the neighborhood around me. The scene changed, and I was suddenly standing inside the house where Kiya was being held hostage by her ex-boyfriend. I searched the home with my eyes; when I turned around images of baby furniture and a “Family Forever” decal hanging on the wall struck me as I listened to Kiya’s sisters begging her to leave with them.
“Kiya” and all of de la Peña’s VR pieces rely heavily on real-life audio recording obtained from the scene. 911 calls, audio from cellphone video or recordings from interviews provide a real life account of what took place.
Still, de la Peña said she’s heard doubt from people, questioning the objectiveness of virtual reality journalism, asking how the piece can be unbiased if it’s being created. But, reporting for VR journalism is just like any other type of journalism, she said.
While working on a piece about the death of Trayvon Martin, de la Peña said they collected the 911 audio through the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), just as one would for a traditional journalism piece.
For the piece “Use of Force,” the story of one immigrant beaten to death by border patrol officers, de la Peña used audio from two cellphone videos at the scene. She also enlisted one woman who had witnessed the attack to come into the lab to do some motion capture work “telling her story through her body,” de la Peña said.
Back at the lab, I removed the goggles after watching “Kiya.” I hadn’t forgotten where I was at, but I was left with a feeling that I’d been in Kiya’s home as well. De la Peña calls this “a duality of presence,” a feeling she often hears from people who experienced VR.
That duality of presence allows you to feel like you’re right there in the story, and that can have a greater impact than simply watching video or reading words on a page.
VR has been promised to the public for decades. We’ve seen glimpses of what the technology can do since the 1950s and 1960s. With Facebook’s purchase of Oculus Rift and the creation of smartphone compatible VR devices that promise is becoming a reality.
Robert Hernandez, director of digital curriculum and digital journalism professor at The Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism at the University of Southern California, has seen the technology and public’s interest in VR grow over time.
Early on, he said, VR images were pixilated and the devices would overheat. Now, the hardware is easier and cheaper to make, the screens are better and with faster processing power VR is easier than ever to consume.
“I always thought the technology’s not good, it’s too clunky, but there’s some cool potential. What I’ve seen over time is that technology will catch up to our imagination,” Hernandez said. “(Think about) our smartphones. When cellphones came out that was just an insane idea—we live in the future and it’s amazing.”
Devices such as Google Cardboard and the Samsung Gear VR have created opportunities for anyone with a smartphone to experience VR. By placing a phone with a downloaded VR app onto the front of the device, viewers can watch VR content right on their smartphone.
Another benefit of devices like Google Cardboard is the inexpensive price tag. On Amazon.com, anyone can purchase a Google Cardboard kit for less than $20. For publishers, it opens avenues to create new and exciting content for readers.
In September 2014, the Des Moines Register was one of the first newspapers to employ VR into one of their stories. The paper launched “Harvest of Change”—a project illustrating the life of today’s American farmer using satellite map imagery, photographs of the farm, the Unity 3D gaming engine, 360-degree video, coders and game designers.
Executive editor/vice president for news and engagement at the Register Amalie Nash said reaction from the public was “overwhelmingly positive.”
“It’s a great example of immersive journalism and is just the tip of the iceberg in terms of the potential for using the technology in journalism,” she said. “In journalism, we often feel like we’re behind when it comes to technology and are trying to catch up…In this case, we were ahead of the technology and figuring out how to use it before it became mainstream. It’s important to have a big idea and experiment your way to the answer.”
While “Harvest of Change” may have been ahead of its time, Mitch Gelman, vice president, product at Gannett Digital—the Register’s parent company—said the public is only now becoming more aware of the technology.
“More people are able to access virtual reality than a year ago (when “Harvest of Change” launched). The introduction of the Samsung Gear, cardboard viewers and coverage in the mainstream media has shown that this is a medium that will go beyond gaming and appeal to a broad audience,” Gelman said.
Current Projects and Challenges
As the technology becomes more readily available to the masses, the news industry is seeing more VR content and opportunities emerge.
The Associated Press recently announced a new virtual reality project called “The Suite Life,” an immersive experience through the Samsung Gear VR headset in which viewers can explore luxury hotel suites. Digital news outlet Fusion announced in August it will create a virtual reality unit to help them explore storytelling potential.
While these early adopters of VR explore the technology’s potential they’re also facing early challenges.
“Harvest of Change” cost more than $20,000 to make, according to Nash, a price tag not many struggling newsrooms can afford. However, she said while the cost for many newsrooms is the largest barrier, like with any technology, the cost and time to create it will decrease.
Gelman said since creating “Harvest of Change,” the price for shooting in 360-degree video had decreased dramatically, and a second VR project Gannett is working on has already attracted a sponsor.
De la Peña said that VR also has the potential to be an independent revenue source for publishers. The unique technology is currently difficult to replicate, which would give publishers exclusive content for readers, an experience de la Peña thinks people will pay for.
However, while de la Peña, Hernandez and other heavy hitters in VR storytelling agree what makes VR unique is that it doesn’t just tell a story or show a story; it allows audiences to experience a story, something de la Peña says can’t be duplicated. Yet, while many call VR an “empathy machine” some question if this technology will separate us further from actual human contact.
When I asked de la Peña and Hernandez about this (both worked together at USC when de la Peña was a journalism fellow), they said the same thing: “Everyone is going to say that.”
“VR has the potential to bring us together and also to isolate us. Just like the Internet, just like the phone…There’s good and bad to everything. It’s not binary,” said Hernandez. “If the wave is coming that is immersive storytelling—if it’s the way people are interacting—then I need to make sure that journalism is there to create relevant, compelling content.
“My mission is still the same whether it’s pixels or paper, broadcast or broadband or immersive VR or a tweet. I signed up to be a journalist and if my journalism takes the shape of these things then so be it. My mission does not change.”
In May, Morgan State University and West Virginia University teamed up to create “Bridging Selma”—a project that looked at Selma, Ala. 150 years after the Civil War and 50 years after the passage of the Voting Rights Act.
The students filmed with a 360-degree camera called the Ricoh (priced at only $400), according to Joel Beeson, associate professor at West Virginia University Reed College of Media.
Although Beeson and his team of students had to use external microphones because of the Ricoh’s low-quality audio, the camera offers publishers and universities an affordable way to experiment with VR storytelling. Now VR storytelling isn’t a novelty curriculum in universities, Beeson said.
“I think that asking why VR in curriculum is like asking why the Internet in curriculum. We don’t have to wait this time. It’s painful to think about schools of journalism wrestling with how to incorporate digital curriculum 15-20 years after digital,” he said. “Let’s confront that now and help determine the technology and story forms so we can make sure journalism…is done well and doesn’t get sidelined.”
Virtual Reality’s Reality
There will never be any shortage of innovative, new or fresh ideas in journalism.
However, as Emblematic Group toils away in its lab and continues to open doors in VR storytelling, as the AP brings viewers into expensive hotel suites, and as universities experiment and explore this new virtual world, Hernandez says this “next big thing” feels different.
“More people are sitting around the table, seeing the potential and actively trying to shape it than any other technology I’ve seen in awhile,” he said.
Soon, the “Minecraft generation,” who grew up playing online games, using cellphones and working on computers, will begin to consume news media. Gelman and de la Peña agree newspapers need to find a way to create content future generations can relate to—content that is high in demand, Hernandez said.
“I play with emerging technologies all the time. I see stuff that could become something all the time,” Hernandez said. “This one (VR), I’m seeing on so many different scales that it is happening. From small news organizations to big ones, if you’re not getting ready for VR you’re missing the boat.”