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article imageIs virtually real news real news? Special

By Les Horvitz     Nov 30, 2015 in Technology
New York - If you can put yourself in the middle of a news story — in virtual reality — rather than just watch it on TV can you still call the story objective journalism? For that matter, just how "real" is virtual reality?
Renowned documentary filmmaker Noony de la Peña has been wrestling with these questions for most of her career.
As one of the first journalists to explore the new medium, she’s been called the "godmother of virtual reality" — VR — for good reason. “What if I could present you a story that you remember with your entire body and not just with your mind?” she asked an audience at a TED conference in November. “You really engage on scene in a way that gives you this incredible connection to where you are.” In other words, it’s as if you were watching a scene unfold on TV and then decided to walk right into it. To de la Peña, the customized hardware she uses to create her immersive stories isn’t mere technology — it’s “an empathy generator, an empathy machine.”
The filmmaker’s choices in presenting a story in VR can either make people cry or walk away, she recently told attendees at a Quartz conference in New York.
In one of her more recent projects — called simply “Syria” — you find yourself on a city street as people go about their daily business. Moments later, there’s a terrible explosion, the street fills with smoke and people begin to scatter in panic. You feel the urge to run, too, but of course, there’s nowhere to run to — you’re not even there. That’s the thing about VR, de la Peña says, you’re both here and there at the same time. The question is: Do you really want to be there — wherever ‘there’ is?
De la Peña has tackled a range of controversial subjects — an interactive exploration of carbon markets; an investigation of detainees held in stress positions and another on conditions at Guantanamo Bay Prison. She also used VR to stage a reenactment of the confrontation between George Zimmerman and Trayvon Martin in 2012.
In “Hunger in Los Angeles,” de la Peña’s first VR project, the viewer stands close to a line of people waiting to enter a food bank. Suddenly a diabetic man collapses from hunger. In reality, the others in line ignored the prostrate man; in virtual reality, viewers try to touch him and come to his aid. When “Hunger” debuted at the LA Sundance Festival in 2012, she had no idea how audiences would react. But once she saw people crying at the end of the presentation she realized that she had a success on her hands. “I think it blew all of our minds.”
Viewers of “Use of Force” are in for a bigger shock; in this piece, the viewer stands behind a fence on a bridge near the U.S.-Mexican border and looks on helplessly as five U.S. border patrol agents savagely beat a deportee named Anastasio Hernandez-Rojas to death.
De la Peña was unemployed when she produced “Hunger,” which she funded with $700 of her own money. She’s now doing much better; her VR production company Emblematic Group has received support from institutions like the University of Southern California, Tribeca Film Institute, Google, The Associated Press and the World Economic Forum. She’s also worked on projects with The Guardian, BBC and Al-Jazeera.
Predictably, major news organizations are getting on the VR bandwagon, too, including The Wall Street Journal, ABC, CNN, The Associated Press and Vice. In November, The New York Times debuted a simple Google cardboard device, which the paper distributed to 1.1 million subscribers of its print edition. Their first offering, “The Displaced,” allows subscribers to download a free app and then use the device to follow three refugee children —Syrian, Ukrainian and South Sudanese — uprooted from their homes. Nonny de la Peña plans to introduce a competitor to Cardboard called Zig Zag, a collapsible VR viewer, which looks like a “hard, plastic eyeglass case” when it’s closed.
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