March 4, 2020

Alumni Spotlight: Nonny de la Peña


By Keryl Brown Ahmed

Nonny de la Peña had a thriving career as a journalist and documentary filmmaker, but something was missing. The disconnect between the stark realities described in written articles and the produced, fixed perspective of the cinematic medium bothered her. She wanted to capture the real-world content of the articles she wrote in a way that allowed readers to truly experience the subject matter.

Sometime in the 1990s, de la Peña came across a book called Virtual Reality by Howard Rheingold. At the time, commercial virtual reality (VR) was still primarily theoretical— practical uses were restricted to NASA and other highly-funded research facilities investigating uses for medical, aeronautical, and military training. Nevertheless, reading about this innovative medium helped de la Peña imagine a world in which she could “put people on the scene and tell real stories.”

While mulling over the concept of VR for journalism, she quickly ran into substantial roadblocks. “There was no real ability to make it, it was expensive, the equipment wasn’t there,” says de la Peña of her early attempts at VR exploration. So she decided to focus on documentary filmmaking until technology caught up to her ideas. In 2003, she produced and directed a documentary on Guantanamo Bay, including a large segment examining civil liberties at the notorious American detention center located in Cuba. “After that we got funding from the Bay Area Video Coalition to build a live version of that section of the documentary, and it kind of took off from there,” she says of herself and her co-author, digital artist Peggy Weil, who is also a lecturer in SCA’s Production Division. With funding from BAVC and the MacArthur Foundation, de la Peña and Weil created a fully immersive virtual reality piece called Gone Gitmo that placed the viewer within the walls of the detention center, simulating the experiences of detainees. “After I made that piece, I realized, ‘Wow, this can be used for all kinds of journalism,’” de la Peña reflected. The 2007 project cemented de la Peña’s place in the VR industry; she is now widely considered the pioneer of “Immersive Journalism,” a term she coined, and has earned the moniker “the Godmother of VR.”

An all-around pioneer in the field, de la Peña did whatever was necessary to create projects. “There were no headsets that worked for what I wanted, there was no production pipeline, so essentially if I wanted to make what I wanted to make, I had to create the headsets and pipeline myself,” she explains.

De la Peña founded and heads a company called Emblematic Group, which creates “impactful content surrounding technology,” specifically virtual reality and augmented reality. “We call it ‘mixed reality’ now,” she says of the evolution of immersive media. Emblematic has launched a new toolset and distribution platform called Reach. Love, which allows users to create their own volumetric experiences with a user-friendly interface and easily modifiable elements. The company is also exploring the world of narrative VR. “It’s cool to be able to carve out the future of fictional storytelling in an immersive space,” de la Peña says. One project, commissioned by the Japanese American National Museum, tells the story of Stanley Hayami, a young man imprisoned in an internment camp during the Second World War.

De la Peña was well into her research on VR before she made the decision to pursue a doctorate. There was finally a program that suited all her interests: SCA’s Media Arts + Practice PhD, which prioritizes experimentation. With a disbelieving laugh, she confirms, “I’ve been running a company while doing my PhD, yes.” She officially completed her degree in May 2019.

As others try to figure out how to tell stories in VR de la Peña, who says she travels “way too much,” is in great demand. “I’m asked to speak a lot, but I love it,” she says. “It’s exciting to be the person to drive the language of new media.”