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Will Virtual Reality Reshape Documentary Journalism?

One documentary filmmaker believes an immersive experience will make a more lasting impression on audiences.

Facebook’s acquisition of Oculus VR in March 2014 for $4 billion brought a resurgence of interest in virtual reality to the mainstream, almost 30 years after the technology first entered the public consciousness. And while Oculus VR’s initial focus has been on video games, Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s CEO, has described the hardware as “the next major computing platform that will come after mobile.”

Filmmaker Nonny de la Peña
Unreal life: Filmmaker Nonny de la Peña wears a virtual-reality headset fitted with lights to aid motion tracking.

Nonny de la Peña agrees with that assertion. The veteran journalist, a former correspondent for Newsweek and regular contributor to the New York Times, has spent the past seven years trying to prove that VR will change journalism. Her efforts demonstrate that virtual reality can offer a novel, compelling way to communicate and inform—but they also reveal some of the challenges involved in re-creating real events in a simulated environment.

De la Peña has made several immersive virtual-reality documentary films including Project Syria, about refugee children in Syria, which was commissioned by the World Economic Forum, and Hunger in Los Angeles, a film about access to food banks in the U.S. that premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January 2012.

“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 explains.

Viewers wear virtual-reality goggles with a wide field of view and are able to freely walk around the environment, which is rendered in 3-D. They are free to choose where they look and move but are unable to affect the linear nature of the nonfiction narrative.

For De la Peña this immersive approach heightens and alters human understanding and emotions toward the news story. She was drawn to the medium the first time she tried a virtual-reality experience, in Barcelona. “I knew I could never go back to traditional storytelling media like film or text,” she says. “The intensity of the experience is so unique that I became permanently driven to tell important stories this way.”

De la Peña is a former classmate of Oculus Rift’s creator, Palmer Luckey (see “10 Breakthrough Technologies 2014: Oculus Rift”). In 2012, the pair studied under Mark Bolas, a researcher who runs the Mixed Reality Lab at the University of Southern California Institute for Creative Technologies. Hunger in Los Angeles was, in fact, created with help from Luckey and other USC students.

De la Peña describes her work as “immersive journalism.” While the work is more challenging than traditional reporting—managing teams of animators, character designers, 3-D modelers, and sound designers—she insists that the medium draws upon the same skills and effort necessary for all strong journalism. “Source material captured at real events is necessary to really make these pieces work,” she says, “and that always takes a lot of time and effort whether you are using traditional news platforms or virtual reality.”

Immersive journalism is subject to the same ethical concerns that journalists working in conventional media face. “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,” says De la Peña.

Despite the similarities in diligence and process, she has experienced pushback from some quarters, including colleagues who believe that journalism shouldn’t be experienced on a platform that, to date at least, is so closely associated with video games. But here De la Peña echoes Zuckerberg’s assertion that VR can be much more than a platform for interactive entertainment. “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.”

While VR has yet to gather significant momentum, De la Peña has seen a marked increase in interest in her work. “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,” she says. “Now that there’s interest, it’s exciting to see others joining my field.”

De la Peña has recently received funding to produce a number of new pieces, both documentary-style and immersive fiction narratives. “After so many years of pushing these ideas up a hill, it is astonishing how quickly it is all now moving.”

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