By Noah J. Nelson (@noahjnelson)
Journalist Nonny de la Peña has been pioneering the use of virtual reality to tell documentary stories for years now.
Her latest work, Use of Force, puts participants in the shoes of witnesses to the killing of thirty-five year old Anastasio Hernandez Rojas at the hands of Border Patrol agents in California. De la Peña calls this kind of work "immersive journalism" and it is an example of the possibilities that virtual reality devices like the Oculus Rift have beyond pure entertainment.
Turnstyle spoke with de la Peña via email while she debuted Use of Force at the Tribeca Film Festival's Storyscapes exhibit (presented by Bombay Sapphire Gin).
TURNSTYLE: Why tell this story through a virtual reality simulation?
Nonny de la Peña : By using advanced technologies that can create a sense of presence, virtual reality offers a unique platform to let the audience feel as if they are "on scene" while the story unfolds.
TURNSTYLE: What do immersive techniques bring to journalism that traditional story craft cannot? Is there an emotional objective with immersive journalism?
NdlP: Because my work often focuses on human rights issues, my pieces are by their nature very emotional. The fact that immersive techniques create such a strong connection to the story only enhances the feelings the audience experience. However, immersive journalism as a platform can allow for an array of stories. It's really just how the journalism world--and fiction narrative makers--decide to use.
Let me know if you want me to send a photo of the "memorial" we set up to allow the audience to write notes to the family. It is becoming inundated with beautiful tags of outrage and support for the family. Virtual reality stories clearly can have an incredible power if done right.
TURNSTYLE: How realistic does a VR simulation have to read to be taken as documentary? Does the illusion of "presence" compensate for the current need to stylize in VR?
NdlP: Researchers Mel Slater and Maria Vives Sanchez call it RAIR - response as if real. With the sense of presence that these technologies allow, as long as the story is plausible, the audience can overlook a lot of the flaws imposed by the current computer graphic limitations. But the ability to run these in real time with photoreal imagery is just around the corner.
TURNSTYLE: What role do you hope see this practice filling in the broader media ecosystem?
NdlP: We know that newspaper readership and television news audiences have diminished radically. Yet younger generations are very comfortable with gaming platforms. Also, these pieces are not easy to just recreate which actually gives them a value that used to belong to these other news industries before it was so easy to copy text or film.
Moreover, I see this as a three-tiered way that content will be developed.
The first will be using mobile viewers like those made at our ICT MxR Lab. Certain quick turnaround material could be shared via a mobile phone. For example, the Trayvon Martin case with cookie cutter buildings that would be quickly modeled, and an SUV that Zimmerman was sitting in could be bought for about $100 on Turbosquid would allow for a 3D reconstruction much better than any I saw on press sites.
The second will be living room experiences where the audience will use an Oculus Rift.
And the third will be full immersive location-based experiences using equipment like that provided by Phasespace which allow that profound sense of presence will walking around. This will require an audience to go to an actual location much like we go to a movie theatre or an Imax today.
TURNSTYLE: How do you feel about the growing interest--and investment--in virtual reality technology?
NdlP: I started in this field almost 8 years ago but the last two years, between game engines like Unity and Palmer Luckey going off to start Oculus Rift has changed my world! I love VR, even as I still keep bumping into frustrating technical limitations. I know it's just a matter of time before many masterpieces will be born.
The Tribeca Film Festival's Storyscapes exhibit will be open through April 26th in New York City.
Public media's TurnstyleNews.com, covers tech and digital culture from the West Coast.