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USC Annenberg Hosts Virtual Reality and Immersive Journalism Hackathon

Nonny de la Peña talks with participants of the hackathon about virtual reality storytelling“What does it mean to experience a story all around you versus experiencing a story in a box?”

That was the question Nonny de la Peña, immersive journalist and the “godmother of virtual reality” posed to the room full of female journalists, technologists and filmmakers at “Hack the Gender Gap”, a virtual reality hackathon hosted by the USC Annenberg School of Communication & Journalism and MediaShift. The event was focused both on emerging virtual reality technology and issues of women working in tech.

Following an opening night panel featuring women leaders in media and technology, each team had just over 24 hours to develop and pitch a start-up idea using virtual reality technology for immersive journalism. In between work sessions, the participants attended workshops in design thinking, marketing and pitching. 

The winning pitch was for Habitat, an environmental news start-up idea for virtual reality storytelling and innovative social impact campaigns (full disclosure: the author was on the winning team). VRacity Media, a subscription-based virtual reality journalism channel, and LikelyMedia, a start-up that would use big data to project future events and "predictive virtual reality experiences", were awarded Honorable Mentions. 

Virtual Reality Hits the Marketplace

Virtual reality has a long and often over-hyped history, but this time it seems the technology is truly catching up to its promise. In 2011, de la Peña came to Annenberg as a senior research fellow and developed a virtual reality piece called Hunger in Los Angeles, an immersive recreation of a food bank line in Los Angeles. When Sundance invited de la Pena to showcase the piece at the “New Frontiers” pavilion, the then 19-year-old Palmer Lucky, a former journalism student, developed a prototype of a VR headset that could travel to the festival. That headset prototype evolved into Oculus Rift, which raised nearly $2.5 million on Kickstarter and was eventually acquired by Facebook in 2014 for $2 billion. The company is now poised to release its first headset to the public in early 2016.

And as the so-called "Minecraft generation" -- the generation that grew up playing online avatar video games -- comes of age, content makers and distributors are gearing up to take virtual reality mainstream. Journalists are actively experimenting with the medium, and game developers and documentary makers are exploring immersive storytelling for social and political engagement. Hulu has announced plans to launch a virtual reality channel later this year while production companies like Vrse and Jaunt are raising serious rounds of capital to greet early adopters of VR with compelling content.

Virtual Reality as a Storytelling Medium: The New Verite Documentary?

De la Peña compares the current state of virtual reality to radio or television when those mediums were new and argues that the medium "is a perfectly viable place to begin to tell stories". Virtual reality seems particularly effective at generating empathy and garnering undivided attention. One of her latest pieces, Use of Force, uses real audio and journalistic standards to recreate a border police brutality case that allows the viewer to witness the actual events as they transpired. The virtual reality piece has generated over 800,000 views, and de la Peña describes it as "a story that did not capture the imagination of the press" but that by "creating a virtual reality piece we were able to communicate to an audience that would otherwise never have seen the story.”