20 September 2018

On VR and AR with Nonny de la Peña 

Contagious speaks with the Godmother of virtual reality, Nonny de la Peña

The Godmother of virtual reality, Nonny de la Peña, was a correspondent for Newsweek and the New York Times before she grew tired of traditional storytelling formats.  Now she creates journalism using VR.

In one piece, called One Dark Night, she recreated the events that led to the shooting of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin in 2012. Project Syria combined computer graphics with real-life footage to put viewers in the middle of a mortar attack and a refugee camp.


In 2007, de la Peña founded Emblematic, which brings together filmmakers, game developers and journalists to produce content in using virtual, augmented and mixed reality. Contagious spoke with de la Peña to discuss her work with brands and what makes good VR/AR content.

What are the benefits of producing content in virtual or augmented reality for brands?

We did a piece for Cartier. They were opening up their new Fifth Avenue building in New York City and they wanted to talk about the timelessness of Cartier and why they were taking over that building. So the idea I had was: how could we do a VR time-lapse? We’re used to time-lapse videos and photos, but what if we were standing there in a time-lapse? What would that feel like? So I found images from 1910 that showed the [building], and then some from the 1970s and the present. So we used very accurate imagery to put you on scene during this very cool moment that told the story of the brand, gave you a unique experience and also broke new ground.

I think, for brands, that’s what they want. They want the novelty but they want to make sure that the novelty and the experience itself also tells a story of who they are. And so, I think VR and AR can be a unique way to engage audiences through both an experience and a story. That’s how I would define AR and VR: you can have experience and story merged into one activation.

When do you recommend using VR and when do you recommend using AR? What are their relative strengths and weaknesses?

The different between VR and AR is that with VR your entire reality becomes virtual. You’re transported to another place. With augmented reality you’re layering information on top of your reality. So, if you really want to take someone to a movie, like you would in a theatre, you’re going to want to consider virtual reality. If you want to convey information, you might want to consider AR.

We built an augmented reality app that lets you quickly look at a live, spatial view of the stock markets, in partnership with the Wall Street Journal. This lets you very quickly glance data and understand it more intuitively than having to read through a list. If you walked into a room and you saw a dinner table, you wouldn’t stop and count the plates: one glance and you would know how many people were coming to dinner.

So you can use AR to very quickly look at spatial data and it isn’t necessarily something that requires storytelling. That said, there is some really cool storytelling that can get done, with things like HoloLens. But that kind of storytelling requires you to wear some sort of device on your face. If you’re looking at augmented reality through your phone it’s good for chasing little bits, but not so good for giving a full story.

How much of an issue is nausea when creating VR experiences? How long can people last in a headset before they feel sick?

Let me tell you what makes you sick, and it’s not staying in the googles. If you have an experience where you’re sitting still but the camera starts moving, your inner ear says ‘hey, I’m sitting still’ but your eyes are saying ‘I’m moving’. That disconnect is what makes people sick. We’ve done so many surveys and that’s the number one thing. If your body’s not moving but your eyes say you are, you can have a really unpleasant experience.

How do you work with brands and what should they think about if they’re interested in creating a VR/AR experience?

I try to get them to talk to me about their ideas. I want to listen to them first and hear where they’re interested in going. Within those ideas we can begin to discuss what puts a person in place, what is the place of value. That’s when you can begin to say ‘oh, if I was there, this would convey information that I couldn’t convey on just a screen or reading about it’.

People ask how I start, and I say that I will literally close my eyes and imagine myself on scene. And that’s how I begin to design and I suggest that’s what brand’s should also do.

What makes a good piece of VR/AR content?

One that doesn’t make you nauseous. But seriously, that’s an issue because lots of people don’t know how to make VR and they’re not paying attention to the unique aspects of the medium. But what makes something powerful usually is the story. And in VR and AR you’ve got to be thinking the same way.

Have you seen any research that confirms how much more effective VR/AR is than traditional media at engaging people or promoting empathy?

We took our own studies and found that people were definitely more engaged with the full walk-around content and really understood some of the stories better in an embodied way.

Are there any techniques that don’t work or come off well in VR/AR?

I had some directors keep writing about ‘close ups’ in a script and I had to keep crossing that out. The viewers will decide if they want to get closer or back away. That’s a really interesting question - how do you draw attention without the old film technique? I think we’re still figuring a lot of that out, but
I’ve found that people are attracted to people. So if you need to draw their attention, put a person there. That’s the number one thing that I’ve found that works.

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