#6: Nonny de la Peña on Immersive Journalism, Empathy in VR storytelling, Human Rights, Virtual Identity, Diversity in VR & collaborating with Palmer Luckey at USC

This interview with Nonny de la Peña was by far my favorite discussion from the Silicon Valley Virtual Reality Conference & Expo. It’s moving to hear about the type of emotional reactions that she’s receiving from her human rights-centered, immersive journalism pieces that are experienced within virtual reality. She has some amazing insights into VR storytelling, virtual identity, and the importance of bringing in more diversity into VR.


Nonny has been working on VR storytelling since creating a Virtual Guantanamo Bay prison cell in Second Life in 2009. She started working on with VR HMDs before the Oculus Rift existed, and in fact was a part of USC’s Institute for Creative Technologies when Palmer Luckey was there. Luckey even provided Nonny with a pre-Oculus Rift HMD for her 2012 Sundance showing of “Hunger in LA.”

She’s also worked with Mel Slater, who has explored a lot of interesting effects of Positive Illusions of Self in Immersive Virtual Reality

Nonny has a ton of insights on the components of creating a compelling VR experience from starting with great audio to creating a believable virtual humans. I also found her vision of a tiered VR future of the untethered IMAX-like experience to the Oculus Rift home experience, and then finally mobile VR to be a compelling distinction for the different levels of VR immersion and associated technologies.

For more information on the service that Nonny uses to create her virtual humans, then be sure to check out this interview with the founder of Mixamo.

Reddit discussion is here.


  • 0:00 – Intro to Immersive Journalism & how it got started
  • 1:29 – Recreating a scene of a Guantanamo Bay prison cell in Second Life
  • 3:30 – Taking control of somebody’s Second Life avatar, and the type of reactions of going through an virtual re-enactment of being a Guantanamo Bay prisoner
  • 4:29 – How people identified with their avatar being bound
  • 5:14 – What were some of your first immersive journalism stories that used a fully immersive, virtual reality head mounted display? Identifying with a VR dody in stress position
  • 7:12 – Institute for Creative Technologies, Mark Bolas, and her connection to Palmer Luckey
  • 8:02 – Immersive VR piece on “Hunger in Los Angeles” & starting with audio
  • 9:20 – Palmer Luckey & pre-Oculus Rift, VR HMD prototype for Sundance January 2012, and audience reactions
  • 11:42 – Commissioned VR piece on Syrian refugees shown at the World Economic Forum
  • 13:21 – Witnessing a border patrol taxing death
  • 13:56 – Next projects and the potential of immersive storytelling
  • 15:20 – What are some key components of storytelling within an immersive VR environment?
  • 17:32 – Why is the reaction of empathy so much stronger in immersive VR?
  • 18:38 – What are the risks of putting people into a traumatic VR scene and triggering PTSD?
  • 19:47 – How do you direct attention within a immersive VR story?
  • 20:55 – Are your immersive journalism pieces interactive at all?
  • 21:30 – How else are people using this immersive VR medium to tell unique stories?
  • 22:47 – What type of software and hardware are you using for your virtual humans in your immersive VR pieces?
  • 21:15 – Being the only woman panelist at SVVR and importance of diversity to VR’s resurgence.
  • 26:36 – Bringing into more diversity into VR storytelling
  • 28:19 – The tiers of VR experiences of IMAX, home and mobile.
  • 29:20 – Location-based, untethered VR experiences being equivalent to going to an IMAX movie.

Theme music: “Fatality” by Tigoolio