VR visionary Nonny de la Peña speaking on a panel at Tribeca Film Festival in 2014.
De la Peña's resume runs the gamut, including work on documentary films, television dramas and a longtime stint as a correspondent for Newsweek. But her name almost always surfaces in connection with the boy billionaire, Oculus VR founder Palmer Luckey, who served as her intern and provided a prototype Oculus Rift when she debuted Hunger in LA at the Sundance Film Festival in 2012. That first VR piece was displayed at New Frontier, an exhibit within the festival that focuses on works that meld technology, art and filmmaking. Hunger served as an entry point to De la Peña's brand of immersive journalism as it dealt with the true story of a diabetic's collapse due to starvation while waiting in line at a food bank in Los Angeles.
"I was really kind of a nightmare because I was so nervous, right?" De la Peña admits, speaking of her VR debut. "It was the first one. I was so scared to go in the world. And then the opening night, when the first people to take off the goggles started crying, I think it blew all of our minds. ... And then nine months later came the Kickstarter for Oculus. And last spring when Palmer ... when they sold the company to Facebook, I texted him, "Thank you so much." Because look. [Gesturing to the New Frontier exhibit around her.] Look at this place now. Look at what's happening here. It's so fabulous!"
De la Peña's right to be so giddy, to take a certain pride in the explosion of VR projects (11 in total) dominating New Frontier. Many of the artists exhibiting this year, like Chris Milk with Evolution of Verse, Rose Troche with Perspective and Danfung Dennis' Zero Point, drew inspiration from seeing her original work and linked up with other like-minded creatives to begin exploring the VR space.
"This is such a visceral empathy generator. It can make people feel in a way that nothing, no other platform I've ever worked in can."
But the fanfare and accolades flowing De la Peña's way are only a recent development. It wasn't always like this. The warm embrace was once a stiff, cold shoulder. "Back in 2012 when I launched Hunger in LA, I was still considered such a weirdo," she explains. "I had colleagues literally pointing their finger at me and saying, 'You can't do that. That doesn't work. It's not ethical. It's too subjective.' And I got so much criticism. It was really difficult."
De la Peña chalks up much of that early anxiety and resistance to the medium's newness, as well as the transformations surrounding traditional notions of journalism. She concedes it was a scary time for old-guard journos that felt like "their lives were being threatened by digital technologies." The introduction of an additional technological layer, virtual reality, certainly didn't ease those fears either.