What if I could present you a story that you would remember with your entire body and not just with your mind? My whole life as a journalist, I've really been compelled to try to make stories that can make a difference and maybe inspire people to care. I've worked in print. I've worked in documentary. I've worked in broadcast. But it really wasn't until I got involved with virtual reality that I started seeing these really intense, authentic reactions from people that really blew my mind.
So the deal is that with VR, virtual reality, I can put you on scene in the middle of the story. By putting on these goggles that track wherever you look, you get this whole-body sensation, like you're actually, like, there. So five years ago was about when I really began to push the envelope with using virtual reality and journalism together. And I wanted to do a piece about hunger. Families in America are going hungry, food banks are overwhelmed, and they're often running out of food. Now, I knew I couldn't make people feel hungry, but maybe I could figure out a way to get them to feel something physical.
So — again, this is five years ago — so doing journalism and virtual reality together was considered a worse-than-half-baked idea, and I had no funding. Believe me, I had a lot of colleagues laughing at me. And I did, though, have a really great intern, a woman named Michaela Kobsa-Mark. And together we went out to food banks and started recording audio and photographs. Until one day she came back to my office and she was bawling, she was just crying. She had been on scene at a long line, where the woman running the line was feeling extremely overwhelmed, and she was screaming, "There's too many people! There's too many people!" And this man with diabetes doesn't get food in time, his blood sugar drops too low, and he collapses into a coma. As soon as I heard that audio, I knew that this would be the kind of evocative piece that could really describe what was going on at food banks.
So here's the real line. You can see how long it was, right? And again, as I said, we didn't have very much funding, so I had to reproduce it with virtual humans that were donated, and people begged and borrowed favors to help me create the models and make things as accurate as we could. And then we tried to convey what happened that day with as much as accuracy as is possible.
(Video) Voice: There's too many people! There's too many people!
Voice: OK, he's having a seizure.
Voice: We need an ambulance.
Nonny de la Peña: So the man on the right, for him, he's walking around the body. For him, he's in the room with that body. Like, that guy is at his feet. And even though, through his peripheral vision, he can see that he's in this lab space, he should be able to see that he's not actually on the street, but he feels like he's there with those people. He's very cautious not to step on this guy who isn't really there, right?
So that piece ended up going to Sundance in 2012, a kind of amazing thing, and it was the first virtual reality film ever, basically. And when we went, I was really terrified. I didn't really know how people were going to react and what was going to happen. And we showed up with this duct-taped pair of goggles.
(Video) Oh, you're crying. You're crying. Gina, you're crying.
So you can hear the surprise in my voice, right? And this kind of reaction ended up being the kind of reaction we saw over and over and over: people down on the ground trying to comfort the seizure victim, trying to whisper something into his ear or in some way help, even though they couldn't. And I had a lot of people come out of that piece saying, "Oh my God, I was so frustrated. I couldn't help the guy," and take that back into their lives.
So after this piece was made, the dean of the cinema school at USC, the University of Southern California, brought in the head of the World Economic Forum to try "Hunger," and he took off the goggles, and he commissioned a piece about Syria on the spot. And I really wanted to do something about Syrian refugee kids, because children have been the worst affected by the Syrian civil war. I sent a team to the border of Iraq to record material at refugee camps, basically an area I wouldn't send a team now, as that's where ISIS is really operating. And then we also recreated a street scene in which a young girl is singing and a bomb goes off. Now, when you're in the middle of that scene and you hear those sounds, and you see the injured around you, it's an incredibly scary and real feeling. I've had individuals who have been involved in real bombings tell me that it evokes the same kind of fear.
[The civil war in Syria may seem far away] [until you experience it yourself.]
[Project Syria] [A virtual reality experience]
NP: We were then invited to take the piece to the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. And it wasn't advertised. And we were put in this tapestry room. There was no press about it, so anybody who happened to walk into the museum to visit it that day would see us with these crazy lights. You know, maybe they would want to see the old storytelling of the tapestries. They were confronted by our virtual reality cameras. But a lot of people tried it, and over a five-day run we ended up with 54 pages of guest book comments, and we were told by the curators there that they'd never seen such an outpouring. Things like, "It's so real," "Absolutely believable," or, of course, the one that I was excited about, "A real feeling as if you were in the middle of something that you normally see on the TV news."
So, it works, right? This stuff works. And it doesn't really matter where you're from or what age you are — it's really evocative.
Now, don't get me wrong — I'm not saying that when you're in a piece you forget that you're here. But it turns out we can feel like we're in two places at once. We can have what I call this duality of presence, and I think that's what allows me to tap into these feelings of empathy. Right?
So that means, of course, that I have to be very cautious about creating these pieces. I have to really follow best journalistic practices and make sure that these powerful stories are built with integrity. If we don't capture the material ourselves, we have to be extremely exacting about figuring out the provenance and where did this stuff come from and is it authentic?
Let me give you an example. With this Trayvon Martin case, this is a guy, a kid, who was 17 years old and he bought soda and a candy at a store, and on his way home he was tracked by a neighborhood watchman named George Zimmerman who ended up shooting and killing him. To make that piece, we got the architectural drawings of the entire complex, and we rebuilt the entire scene inside and out, based on those drawings. All of the action is informed by the real 911 recorded calls to the police. And interestingly, we broke some news with this story. The forensic house that did the audio reconstruction, Primeau Productions, they say that they would testify that George Zimmerman, when he got out of the car, he cocked his gun before he went to give chase to Martin.
So you can see that the basic tenets of journalism, they don't really change here, right? We're still following the same principles that we would always. What is different is the sense of being on scene, whether you're watching a guy collapse from hunger or feeling like you're in the middle of a bomb scene. And this is kind of what has driven me forward with these pieces, and thinking about how to make them. We're trying to make this, obviously, beyond the headset, more available. We're creating mobile pieces like the Trayvon Martin piece. And these things have had impact. I've had Americans tell me that they've donated, direct deductions from their bank account, money to go to Syrian children refugees. And "Hunger in LA," well, it's helped start a new form of doing journalism that I think is going to join all the other normal platforms in the future.