Nonny de la Peña could be accused, perhaps fairly, of bringing the vegetables to virtual reality. Having worked for decades to develop the possibilities of VR and AR (augmented reality) — having in fact been dubbed the “godmother of VR” — de la Peña has used the technology to tell difficult and painful stories: about imprisonment at Guantanamo Bay, or systemic hunger, or the quiet moments of war. Why not jump on the immersive-sex wagon, or create another arena-fighting game? Why the serious stuff? Why the vegetables?
Blame journalism. Before she was the godmother of VR, the Venice-born de la Peña was a reporter for Newsweek. Then she made her first media shift — into documentary, working with HBO and CourtTV. Give her career the thousand-yard stare and what you see is someone pushing up against the limits of the medium, trying to exceed the capacities. Failing that, she’ll just build something else.
“When you do journalism, the whole point is to bring people closer to a scene that they can’t otherwise participate in,” she says. When she first walked through a virtual space at a lab at the University of Barcelona, she understood something that made her previous work … insufficient. “At that moment I realized I can’t put my audience out there. They have to be in the story, with me.”
As the founder of Emblematic Group, a Santa Monica-based VR studio that produces immersive experiences for the likes of The New York Times and Wall Street Journal, de la Peña intends to make VR and AR an experiential go-to, rather than a novelty. Emblematic’s projects are ambitious, designed to obliterate the luxury of distance afforded by the magazine story, the podcast, or the documentary. Stand in a living room as two women try to keep a man from shooting their sister; endure solitary confinement; walk through the night George Zimmerman shot Trayvon Martin; watch Greenland melt. In a nod to the commercial possibilities of VR, Emblematic turned New York’s Cartier store into a time machine: buses may replace horses, but diamonds are forever!
“We’ve been able to continue to be leaders in the field of the non-gaming ways that content can be made,” she says. “That’s been a super interesting field to be able to show people the possibilities.”
Not to say she hasn’t gotten pushback. There were times when she wondered if she’d even have a career, when industry disinterest meant she was without a job. But maybe she’s only ever been in this space. As a young Hispanic woman learning to code at Harvard in the ’90s in roomfuls of white men, she always kind of recognized that she was swimming against one current or another.
Her own notable leap forward in the VR space happened in 2007. Working with digital media artist Peggy Weil and some donated e-land in the game “Second Life,” de la Peña adapted a documentary she’d made on Guantanamo Bay into a VR experience. It simulated torture. De la Peña wanted the opposite of what VR seemed to promise: not escape from reality, but a deeper relationship with it.
As a research fellow at USC, she followed up “Gone Gitmo” with a piece called “Hunger in Los Angeles.” None other than Palmer Luckey designed the goggles for that one, less than a year before he created Oculus Rift. These projects evolved into Emblematic Group.
And now that VR seems to be sticking, de la Peña wants to kick past the hurdle of the technology itself: the clunky headsets that, let’s face it, no one’s going to adopt en masse. As Emblematic works on ever-bigger projects, it’s also working on apps to let people not only navigate VR on the web, but design in VR, too. De la Peña wants to christen many godchildren of virtual reality.
“As far as I’m concerned, it’s not everything I want it to be unless everyone is participating and taking advantage of the power of the medium,” she says. And, yes, that means sometimes eating your vegetables.
— Brandon Reynolds