Nonny de la Peña: Immersive Journalist

Storytelling brought to life: Experience the true impact of news and stories by being there through virtual reality.

Hunger prowls the streets of Los Angeles like a wolf. Living in LA is a struggle and making ends meet to provide for family is coming up short. Another day is about to pass in hunger, and you are there, a witness to this sad commentary on hunger in America. You’ve just been immersed in a true-life journalistic drama using virtual reality. When you’re done, take off your headset and have a nice day, or better yet, feel compelled to do something to make a difference in our world.

It’s one thing to read about something and another thing entirely to live it. Award-winning Mexican-American journalist, documentary filmmaker, and CEO/Founder of Emblematic Group, Nonny de la Peña is spearheading a new tech movement that will help bridge the gap between experience and reality and bring the story to life through virtual reality.

De la Peña’s virtual reality projects through the Emblematic Group have won many awards and she has been nicknamed the “Godmother of Virtual Reality.”

Budding Journalist

De la Peña, originally from Venice, California, received a BA in sociology and visual and environmental studies from Harvard University. She also holds an MA in online communities from the University of Southern California.

Towards the beginning of her career, de la Peña worked as a contributor for periodicals such as La Familia De Hoy, Caravan, and Buzz. She also worked as an associate producer for an investigative documentary called Death on the Job, which was nominated for an Academy Award.

From there, de la Peña went on to found Pyedog Productions in 1994, which was a production company that focused on feature-length documentaries following stories that had either social and/or cultural impact. Some of those documentaries included Unconstitutional: The War on Our Civil Liberties, The Jaundiced Eye, and Mama/MAMA.

Emblematic Group

In 2007, de la Peña officially changed the name of Pyedog Productions to Emblematic Group. The company is responsible for creating the first ever virtual reality documentary, Hunger in Los Angeles, which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in 2012.

The documentary took viewers through the true story of a man collapsing into a hunger induced diabetic coma while waiting in line at a food bank. The documentary was created in such a way that through virtual reality, the viewer (or participant) feels as though they are actually witnessing the event in real time.

According to its website, Emblematic specializes in making “re-creations of actual events, fantasy environments, and powerful data visualizations.”  A brief glance at their repertoire will give you an idea of the types of stories this company is working to share through virtual reality experiences.

After Solitary follows the story of Kenny Moore who was a released inmate that spent years in solitary confinement. Other stories aren’t even about people at all, but instead, bring awareness to the current climate crisis, showing the rapid melting and disappearing of the icy glaciers in Greenland.

Emblematic also took a more personal turn and created an experience called Out of Exile that follows Daniel Ashley Pierce coming out to his family and his family having “religious intervention.” Other topics include stories about violence, desperation and hope. De la Peña and her team have an impeccable knack for taking a story and, quite literally, bringing it to life.

More Innovation

Emblematic’s latest project is called Reach, allowing people to experience virtual reality right from their computer or smart phone. Reach is still in beta testing, but it will use a simple drag-and-drop interface that allows users to place real people into 3D virtual reality environments.

This interface could also be a real game changer for how students learn in the classroom and, according to de la Peña, all that’s needed to work the platform is curiosity. Reach premiered at the Sundance Film Festival, where festival goers had the opportunity to place themselves in different VR worlds using the platform and then share their experience.

Aside from Reach, de la Peña is also beginning work on a project that will follow what’s currently happening at the border as well as a project about Japanese-American internment camps in collaboration with Spectrum News.

Awards and Acclamations

De la Peña and Emblematic Group have earned many awards through the years. She was named one of Wired’s 15 #MakeTechHuman Agents of Change for her ability to report world conflict through virtual reality. De la Peña is also the recipient of the 2016 Knight Innovation Award and is a 2018 New America National Fellow.

Emblematic Group has received awards from the Tribeca Film Festival, Sundance Film Festival, World Economic Forum, Indiecade 2014, SXSW, My Hero Project, Center for Conscious Creativity, Mirror Awards, Unity Awards, Ars Electronica, Online Journalism Awards, and a host of others.

In a world that is ever veering towards more and more high tech, Nonny de la Peña and Emblematic Group are definitely at the forefront of bringing news stories of social justice and more to life right in front of our eyes. Learn more about this exciting immersive technology at emblematicgroup.com.