Step Into the Story: What Will Virtual Reality Mean for News, Entertainment, Art, and Democracy?

VR Event13 300x200 - Step Into the Story: What Will Virtual Reality Mean for News, Entertainment, Art, and Democracy?
Provost Poon at Step Into The Story VR Event

On Monday, Sept. 17, 2018, faculty, students, and staff made their way to the Playa Vista campus to “Step Into the Story” with Nonny de la Peña and her team from the Emblematic Group. De la Peña, a visionary storyteller who is widely known as the ‘Godmother of VR,’ presented on augmented and virtual reality and how this rapidly advancing technology is changing storytelling, journalism, and lives.

“VR is the most effective form of communication that I have ever used,” said de la Peña.

Immersive media – and journalism – allows the user to have a first-person experience of a news event or situation. Journalists and filmmakers can tell their stories in a way that touches upon multiple aspects of the human experience and users often have powerful emotional and empathetic reactions.

“Nonny’s presentation was a perfect kickoff for the PV campus – an exploration of both the great opportunities that VR offers for enhancing how we tell stories and as a means of deepening our sense of empathy, as well as the myriad of ethical challenges that such technologies present,” said Elizabeth Drummond, associate professor and chair of history. The history department organized the event as the kickoff BCLA event at the new LMU campus at Playa Vista.

De la Peña discussed her breakthrough project, Hunger in Los Angeles, a VR experience based on the audio of a man collapsing in a diabetic coma while waiting in line for food outside of a downtown Los Angeles food bank. Working on a tight $700 budget, de la Peña used an actor in a motion capture suit to play all of the roles and built the goggle prototype in her mother’s garage. The piece, which shines a spotlight on the effects of hunger and an overburdened local food system, premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in 2014, where actress Gina Rodriguez came out of the experience crying.

This type of response continued throughout the festival, and de la Peña knew she was on to something. Since then she has produced pieces on the border death of Anastacio Hernandez Rojas, the Syrian crisis and its refugee children, domestic violence, abortion clinic protesters, and global warming.

Emblematic Group shared their project Greenland Melting throughout the day and after the event in two classrooms at the Playa Vista campus. Visitors, including Provost Thomas Poon, were transported to Greenland’s majestic glaciers. Using VR, they traveled across nine different locations throughout the country to experience the effects of a changing arctic.

De la Peña is optimistic about the future of VR, believing that new technology will soon make the medium widely available. The Emblematic team is currently developing a new platform called ‘Reach.’ Once complete, it will provide an open door for content authorship, empowering new voices to tell their own stories.

The “Godmother of VR” is also conscious of the problem of female representation in VR, both as creators and consumers. “We need women on panels, at conferences, and in mentorship roles. We also need women who can code, produce, write, and finance,” she said.

After her presentation, de la Peña joined in a conversation with two LMU faculty members, Amy Woodson-Boulton, from the history department, and Evelyn McDonnell, from Journalism. The audience then engaged in a lively discussion about the possibilities and dangers of these new technologies.

Immersive storytelling has the potential to use the virtual world to close gender and social gaps in the real world through inclusivity, diversity, and the power of shared experiences.

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