Nonny de la Peña — a force to reckon with

With a new way to view news through Virtual Reality, Nonny is getting people to care more; including me!

Nonny de la Peña at one of her talks; Source Image: Youtube.com

In 2012, when a girl was brutally raped and left to die in the Indian National Capital, Delhi, everyone in India was shaken to the core. No rape case had been dissected in so much detail before — right from how she was raped to how she was found later, to her last words — everything was conveyed to the public by the media. But the detailed media reports seemed to work as people were reacting like never before, demanding stricter laws and protesting incessantly. Six months later, another rape victim was found, this time in Mumbai. The victim survived, and any news on the incident barely made it out alive; it probably wasn’t “newsworthy” anymore. More news of rapes and murders followed suit; but media and people had moved on from the initial shock and terror, and the novelty of the entire incident had passed.

It suddenly struck me as to how desensitized everyone around had become, to the news of rapes, deaths, bombings. After all, until it happens to you, you don’t care, beyond a certain point, right?

I was becoming more and more disillusioned with the role of a journalist and what the media should be doing. Several arguments and discussions suggested that the media gave the people what they wanted to see, hear and read. Really, is sensational news what people want?

While pondering over this, I came across news of a new type of “immersive experience” called Hunger in LA, being selected to the Sundance Festival. Intrigued, I decided to explore further and voila! There it was, my ray of hope!

Nonny de la Peña, a former journalist turned pioneer in Virtual Reality (VR) news was saying things like ‘getting people to care’ and ‘putting people on scene, in the middle of the story’ while talking about giving news. This was enough for me to want to see what this new, immersive experience was. I found its preview and was instantly drawn to this medium. Nonny de la Peña had managed to bring me back from turning into a complete cynic about today’s media.

Screenshot from “Hunger in LA” which was showcased at Sundance in 2012; Source Image: Emblematic Group

Nonny’s passion, her desire to get people to care more about the news and people around, struck a chord with me. What is this Virtual Reality? Why hadn’t I heard of this before?

I started researching. Despite being relatively new, VR films are seeing a sudden boom today, post-Nonny’s efforts to bring this medium to life. Making such films is courageous, and so is engaging with them. You cannot ignore what happens to a guy who collapses (Hunger in LA). You want to reach out and help. You feel helpless. You want to go out and do something about it; at least start a dialogue about it. And that, in my opinion, is more than what today’s news is able to do.

But trying to innovate the way we receive news wasn’t easy for Nonny. She explains in several of her interviews and in her Ted talk as to how she was dismissed, even discouraged by her colleagues over her idea, it just shows the courage that this woman holds. To plow through all the criticism, discouragement and lack of funding, to actually create something that matters. That is something!

In fact, wanting to make a difference seems to be a theme of Nonny’s career graph. Formerly a print, broadcast and documentary journalist, she also tried her hand at games. Her newsgame — Three Generations, a game made to bring about discussions and emotional reactions to the 1990s’ Californian Eugenics movement — on which she worked alongside Simon Wiscombe, was selected as a demo at Game For Change. This simply shows that she sought to bring about some change even through this medium.

With the same intentions in mind — to bring about emotional reactions, to get people to care and to get people talking — Nonny formed the Emblematic Group; a company producing immersive virtual reality content.

Despite the initial resistance to her experiment with the medium, today Nonny de la Peña, or The Godmother of Virtual Reality, as dubbed by The Guardian, has been lauded by one and all. This year, she has been named as the Yale Poynter Media Fellow, and recently, her company has been awarded a Knight Foundation grant to make VR films in collaboration with Frontline.

I am determined to meet this woman; this compassionate news maker. And after reading this Engadget article by Joseph Volpe, in which he asks Nonny if she would be interested in hiring and training journalists in VR, Nonny’s response makes me think that this might happen sooner than I imagined. She says and I quote: “That would be a dream come true. It would be a dream come true to do that.”

And it would be a dream come true for me too!

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