At at 2018 South by Southwest event that is seeing a strong shift toward virtual- and augmented-reality technology moving into the hands of filmmakers, convergence keynote Nonny de la Peña made a strong case for embracing a new generation of storytelling tools for journalism and documentary experiences.
De la Peña, who came across as both deeply thoughtful about the medium of VR storytelling and quick on her feet particularly in answering a batch of audience questions at the end, showed some examples of how VR, 360-degree filmmaking and a tech some might be unfamiliar with, “Volumetric VR,” can help give stories about race, the criminal justice system, melting glaciers and other topic more immediacy by putting people in the middle of that story and giving them a full-body sensation of being there.
The presentation was popular: the large Room 18ABCD at the Austin Convention Center was at-capacity 15 minutes before the talk, sending attendees to a spillover room for a simulcast of the talk.
She showed examples of some of these VR works including “Kiya,” a devastating work on domestic violence
and “Project Syria,” which ironically, was the subject of racist commentary when it was released in 2016.
She addressed the issue of whether taking journalism to VR might lead to issues of mistrust in an era when even photorealistic photos can be manipulated. De la Peña said the same journalistic principles of print and other media can be applied to these new forms and that fact checking, veracity and education are still vital.
But, she said, there’s a big difference that VR affords in how it creates empathy for a subject or topic. She said she resisted the idea of making projects to build empathy for a while, but now she’s back to embracing it. “People don't get why a glacier melting is important until they’re at the side of the glacier seeing it retreating,” she said. “You don't experience your world flat, you experience your world with volume... This medium is still waiting for the content makers to come in and make it something special.”
On the subject of volumetric VR, de la Peña said the tools to create virtual, 3-D experiences by stitching together a large series of photographs is getting easier and cheaper, even with just software and a smart phone. To that end, her company Emblematic Group is releasing a platform called REACH to serve that purpose. The platform will allow VR streaming over a simple browser, something she said will become more common at 5G-speed networks roll out.
She said that companies such as AT&T and Qualcomm want VR pioneers to make examples using this tech. “They’re all looking for ways to show what 5G can do,” she said. “Don’t be afraid to push the envelope with data-intensive stuff.”
As a journalist, it seemed natural that de la Peña acknowledged the package explosions happening in Austin during SXSW. She said of the incidents, “I don’t believe we are meant to be this way. Kindness can prevail. We’ve gotta make a stand against this.”
When asked by an audience member, she said she’s also grappling with a way to tell a story about U.S. school shootings using these tools.
And looking further into the future, she said she’d also like to do a project using historical documentation about the life of Joan of Arc. “Doing it in VR could just be super amazing,” she said.
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