#298: Nonny de la Pena on Empathy in VR

Nonny-de-la-Pena-headshotChris Milk’s TED talk last year popularized the idea that virtual reality has the potential to be the ultimate ’empathy machine.’ Emblematic Group’s Nonny de la Peña has been one of the original pioneers of exploring empathy in VR through a series of immersive journalism pieces ranging from torture in Guantanamo Bay, homelessness in LA, the Syrian refugee crisis, and most recently domestic violence with Kiya and what it’s like to walk through an abortion clinic protest with Across the Line. I had a chance to catch up with Nonny at Sundance to get more insight into how she cultivates empathy within VR, but also why she’s so motivated to always stand up for the underdog within her work.


Become a Patron! Support The Voices of VR Podcast Patreon

Theme music: “Fatality” by Tigoolio

Subscribe to the Voices of VR podcast.

Rough Transcript

[00:00:05.452] Kent Bye: The Voices of VR Podcast.

[00:00:10.135] Nonny de la Pena: I'm Nani de la Pena and I am founder of Emblematic Group. We have two pieces here, Kia and Cross the Line. Kia uses actual 911 calls to recreate a tragic event in which two sisters try unsuccessfully to rescue a third sister from a fatal attack by an ex-boyfriend. I basically put you on scene while the event transpires. And it is a really emotional, impactful piece that is trying to get people to connect to the fact that three women a day are killed by their intimate partners in the United States. So that's the one piece. And I have it across three different platforms. I have it on the Vive, so you're standing in the room with them. I have it on the Gear VR, so you can use your mobile phone. And it's also on cardboard through the New York Times VR app, which just got released on Thursday, which is rather exciting. And the other piece across the line is a collaboration with 371 Productions, Brad Lichtenstein and Jeff Fitzsimmons. And what that does is combine a combination of 360 video and CG to take you to health centers across the country and put you in the shoes literally of young women who are trying to access health services at places like Planned Parenthood, and you face a kind of gauntlet of vitriol that young women literally do on a regular basis at these clinics.

[00:01:32.985] Kent Bye: Yeah, and the thing I was struck with about Kiva is that I didn't really know where it was going or what was happening, what this was about. You know, I could see this was a conflict, but then when it ended it had this big emotional impact of like, oh wow, I really felt that scene and what that was like. And so for you, when you think about telling that story, you have the raw audio, but What makes a good VR story? Like when you see that and you see the audio and you're like, oh wow, this would be really great to actually see it. And I'm just trying to figure out the components that you saw in that story that you thought would make it a good story to tell in VR.

[00:02:07.309] Nonny de la Pena: So Kia was based on a Fault Lines episode that was a collaboration with Al Jazeera America and particularly a young producer named Cassandra Herman who found the original material. And what I did was go back and take the tapes and recut them so they'd be appropriate for VR. And I pretty quickly these days can hear material and get the verite moment that would work for an embodied experience. You know, I often tell when I go to give a talk and say, oh, I want to get started. How do I get started? And I say, well, You know, first thing is, you know, close your eyes and feel where your body is in space. Now feel yourself inside that story you want to tell. Where would you be? Where would you stand? What would you literally do with your body? And so that's the way I start every story. I honestly can't help it. I hear this stuff and I shut my eyes and I think, oh yeah, that's how I'd make it if it happened all around me. And the other thing I often say is lock off the camera. Don't move the camera. You don't need to. It can make a percentage of your audience nauseous. If you go forward or backward, our eyes are saying, oh, you're moving. And our body's saying, but I'm not moving. And that disconnect can really bring on some sickness. And that can last for hours and be quite unpleasant and help kill our industry, which is so just barely beginning. The other thing, though, I can tell people is that, you know, you can make the camera go up or down, because our bodies can't do that, so there's no real disconnect there. So, that's just some very specific things that I think about when I begin to construct pieces.

[00:03:29.820] Kent Bye: Talk a little bit about the process of making Crossing the Line, because it's a pretty intense combination of live action cinema verite, 360 video, but also with some recreated scenes so that you can get a little bit more interactivity with some actual live audio as well.

[00:03:46.341] Nonny de la Pena: So, two things were going on there. We decided we wanted to film a protest, but we also then wanted to take people and give them an opportunity to walk around. And, you know, because this happens so regularly and the vitriol is so strong that we felt like there must be a way to kind of open the conversation up a little bit more and not have it be so polarized and activate people who, you know, unfortunately do things like what recently happened in Colorado with the, you know, murder of several people, of innocent people. The second half, the CG half, was an investigation of what does a montage mean in VR, when you can walk around. So the audio itself is all real, but it comes from different points across the country. And the idea was like, how do you express a national scene without going from one place to another in a cut that you would do in a film? How do we do that same sort of thing, but maybe make it experiential? So there was some exploration there for sure, but the idea was to sort of put you at that line and have you experience the kind of really extraordinary and terrible things that yelled at, you know, young women, you whore, you shouldn't have been sleeping with every guy at the club, or, you know, my favorite, which is, you know, wicked Jezebel feminist. So we actually made t-shirts that says that.

[00:04:55.792] Kent Bye: Yeah, so it's sort of a hot topic of Planned Parenthood now that's since the beginning of when you first started working on it. And so how do you see that this VR experience kind of fits into the national discussion with what's happening with Planned Parenthood?

[00:05:08.495] Nonny de la Pena: So, you know, the goal of the piece is to kind of take a look at what it's like to be on the side of being yelled at. You know, you'll hear folks will say, like, well, Jesus wouldn't yell at her. Jesus would hold her hand. So the piece is not about, oh, it's an us or them over a religious issue. It's more about why is it okay for people to say such spiteful, hateful things. And, you know, sometimes young women are just going in for a pap smear or, you know, to get health care and it's low-income women, right? And, you know, abortion is a right in this country. so I Understand people should have their different views and I boy I literally I would defend anybody's right to their religious belief or their their right to free speech But I think that there's a certain Space there that you know when you're trying to get medical care Maybe it's somewhat protected in terms of what you need to endure just to walk in the doors for medical care. I And I think that this can be a very gendered issue. I found it was predominantly white males who were doing the screaming. And that most women would agree with what we're portraying in the film. Unfortunately, I had two great male partners. But it is a very hot issue. But boy, has that organization helped a lot of women.

[00:06:30.053] Kent Bye: Now, when you think about virtual reality and cultivating empathy, I think that's probably a clear thread through all of your work is trying to generate a sense of empathy. And why is virtual reality such a great medium to cultivate empathy?

[00:06:47.221] Nonny de la Pena: So, I think what's so amazing about VR, and such an interesting piece of this, is that, you know, we experience the world through our bodies, not just through our minds, right? It's just the way it is. We feel things through our body, and I can talk a lot about that, and have thought a lot about that, but, you know, you can just simply say, like, when you're watching a movie and some scary thing happens, you jump, right? Your body's there with you in the movie theater. Now imagine you're walking around and you're inside a story. Now you're really engaging your body in the story. And I think that that's one of the reasons why people connect so deeply to these pieces, and why they offer an entree into a more empathic connection. People feel the stories, and that feeling is unique right now to this medium. And I've had many people say, oh my god, I remember that story in my body as much as it's in my mind. And I think that that's one reason why people are so connected. They feel like they're there. And when you feel like you're there, things have more meaning. You know, I call it the duality of presence. Don't get me wrong. I'm not saying that people forget where they are. They know they're here, but they feel like they're there, too. And that's definitely something that's new for the way that people experience story. And there's nothing like virtual reality as an entree point for that.

[00:08:00.296] Kent Bye: Back in November my wife committed suicide and I created a VR experience out of that and my experience of that was that this deep pain and trauma can be the source of art and I'm curious like what is it in your work that you feel like is this coming from a place your own pain or Like, how are you able to like sort of tap into? Larger story of suffering or what is it that is really driving you to do this work?

[00:08:34.183] Nonny de la Pena: Why do I need to always defend the underdog? So I'm a woman, I'm Latina, you know, that has its own underdog nature but, you know, I used to go off. I mean, the stories from my mom of not being served in restaurants in Texas because she was Mexican, um, used to resonate with me very strongly. Many of them think that she endured in a funny way. She's this tiny little five foot person and couldn't be, um, more kind and gentle and giving and loving. And somehow maybe that's why I fight kind of in some ways make up for the fact that nobody there was to defend her. Um, but I'm not sure why I'm so driven to, these stories, you know, sometimes I get accused of, you know, pain porn or something stupid like that. But, you know, I mean, if somebody doesn't stand up and yell this stuff from the mountaintops, we are going to look away. And change only happens if you get people to understand and become informed global citizenry, and they can make the kind of choices to bring about change.

[00:09:49.624] Kent Bye: And so how do you see virtual reality being able to help make that happen?

[00:09:55.225] Nonny de la Pena: So it's an interesting question, like once I make a piece, how do, you know, what gives people the tools to act? And I tend not to go there, right? And mostly because I have a journalistic training and that point for me is that good investigative pieces try to deal with wrongs in the world or things that are problematic or whatever and I certainly, that's where I come from. But I do think that it does offer a gut reaction that then people want to act on. So what's my responsibility there? And I haven't figured that out. You know, my journalistic training is, hang on, that's not my job. Other part of me thinks, well, that's not really fair. Nicholas Kristof talked about this a lot. It's calmness that he brings people to these emotional places and should offer them some educated, source-vetted ways that they could then act upon the kind of stories that he's made. So, I am, you know, I'm still kind of feeling my way through that territory. You know, my background is a correspondent for Newsweek, I made doc films, I've written for a bunch of major journals, so you're training there, you're going to report stories, you're not going to be an advocacy, that's not what you're doing, you're not working for an NGO or something. On the other hand, I think I was calling what happened in Gitmo torture long before people were accepting that as true, and yet I don't think anybody disagrees with that assessment now. So, I don't want to back down. I don't want to back down from these things, but at the same time, I'm still figuring out, you know, I don't have necessarily the resources to get people to act. And I'm also, I love to make, and that's part of this too. Like, my journey definitely is, I'm one of the luckiest people on the planet right now. luckiest people on the planet, to have a dream of making in this full embodied way and which is so similar to the way that I experience the real world and bring it into my storytelling practice and to have this incredible team working with me and to have my company growing and thinking of all kinds of amazing ways that we can push technology forward and tell important stories. I mean, wow, like, who gets to do that in their lifetime? I cannot tell you how grateful I am.

[00:11:56.807] Kent Bye: So what are some of the other projects that you have coming up then?

[00:12:01.450] Nonny de la Pena: So we're working on a fact that 80% of homeless youth are LBGTQ kids who've been thrown out by their parents. And we're working with a kid who got thrown out by his parents and recorded some really interesting material. And we'll be telling his story as a larger piece. We're doing some fun stuff too, science fiction short stories. A couple of big branded pieces with major clients to help fund the smaller pieces. Just finished up, actually, a Pygmalion piece, which is really, you know, the story of a guy falling off the statue and kissing her when she comes to life. And, you know, no medium-sized VR would let you have a statue come to life in front of you. We're doing a whole host of projects that are fun and provocative and important all in one. Oh, and also to finish this really fun piece that I've got to get out there, which is an Air Rage piece, which has actually got some breaking news with it, too.

[00:12:53.035] Kent Bye: So if you were to paint a picture for what you see, how would you like to see virtual reality go out there and impact the world? What would that look like for the best case scenario?

[00:13:03.561] Nonny de la Pena: that VR would start its process as being diverse rather than having to come back and open up and be inclusive like the way that it's having to be forced on the Motion Picture Academy now. They're having to force diversity in because it wasn't inherent and natural. So that's one of my big dreams is how do I make sure that my studio is always 50% women and Mixed racially and offer all kinds of opportunities and open doors, you know, I got like this really crazy Application recently from a guy who's been working a security guard at the airport But he's also been teaching himself how to do all kinds of beautiful things that would be very useful and I'm like You know what? That's the job that he was able to get based on our society today Maybe I need to just bring him in here and see what he can do. I And I think I have to take some risks to do that. But if again, that's my dream would be like to have a studio that always was from the get go, showing that this is a medium that can be open to a whole mix and host of kinds of folks.

[00:14:06.674] Kent Bye: And finally, what do you see is kind of the ultimate potential of virtual reality and what it might be able to enable?

[00:14:14.850] Nonny de la Pena: So I think virtual reality is going to advance knowledge in a way that might just potentially change the world. You know, we know that things kind of videoed internet knowledge searches have profoundly affected connection around the world. But now if you could be with somebody in a room while they're teaching you how to, you know, I don't care what, fix a light socket, I mean, That's a mundane idea, but boy, having somebody there who's got that tacit knowledge to show you means we can share knowledge in a way. I also believe that it's going to become very connected. I tell the story of my son being in the living room with his laptop open and my daughter walked in from the outdoor garage office and he looked up from his computer and said, why did you leave? You know, she just walked in, right? What did he mean? Well, he meant, why did you leave the Minecraft server we were playing together on? And they've been in this shared space. And I think that VR is going to offer really interesting shared spaces. Already all the phones are letting you scan your environment and people so that you can share that very quickly. I think that that's going to change the way that we connect around the planet. And, you know, I know I'm an optimist, but might as well go there, right? You might as well dream for these things or else they might never happen. Thank you so much. I really, really appreciate your interest and your time.

[00:15:34.790] Kent Bye: And thank you for listening. If you'd like to support the Voices of VR podcast, then please consider becoming a patron at patreon.com slash voices of VR.

More from this show