The journey from emerging to established technology is rarely a straightforward one, and virtual reality (VR) is no exception. Just ask Nonny de la Peña, CEO and founder of VR-driven media outfit Emblematic Group. Nicknamed the “Godmother of VR,” de la Peña has been around for all of the field’s growing pains––even back when headsets were held together by “lots of duct tape and paper clips.”
“We had my brother breaking goggles in my mom’s garage,” jokes de la Peña, recalling the headsets her company used in its early days. “Now the field has definitely matured. There are a lot of headset manufacturers out there, so we don’t have to worry about that anymore.”
VR’s evolution is due in no small part to the contributions of de la Peña herself. Through her work at Emblematic Group, she has again and again pushed the boundaries of what VR––and related technologies such as augmented and mixed reality––can do. As she continues to search for compelling new ways to tell stories, she now also looks to share her knowledge with the next generation of innovators and creators.
De la Peña discovered her interest in and aptitude for tech as an undergraduate at Harvard University, where she majored in visual and environmental studies and sociology. “They required all freshmen to take basic programming, and I was really, really good at it,” she says. “I should have continued in computer programming, but I was nervous because everybody kept saying how hard it was, and I felt less educationally prepared than many of my classmates.”
De la Peña found her confidence in a different discipline: journalism. During her final year at Harvard, she received funding to travel back and forth to Los Angeles to report on a Chicano gang with territory not far from where she’d grown up in Venice, California. The project, which included both text and photographs, helped kickstart her career as a journalist at venues like Newsweek and the New York Times.
De la Peña later pivoted from print journalism to documentary filmmaking to engage her interest in visual art. Tech became involved in her work soon after that. “With the advent of the web, I started teaching myself to code,” she explains. “Around that time, a book by Howard Rheingold called Virtual Reality came out. I read the book and thought, ‘This is what I want to do with my life.’”
By “this,” de la Peña means not just getting into VR, but leveraging it as a storytelling medium. In 2007, her first VR project was a collaboration with digital artist Peggy Weil designed to bring Guantanamo Bay to the forefront of public consciousness. “We built a virtual Guantanamo Bay in Second Life, one of the earliest metaverse spaces,” remembers de la Peña.
Beyond attracting significant attention, the project inspired de la Peña to coin the term “immersive journalism.” She solidified the genre with her follow-up piece Hunger in Los Angeles, which premiered at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival––making it the first VR documentary ever to do so.
“I had established the concept of using these new technologies for news, nonfiction, and journalism, instead of for gaming,” de la Peña says. “That led people to the idea that serious work––work of value and importance––could be done in these spaces.”
But how to do that work? For de la Peña, founding Emblematic Group was the only answer. “When you’re trying to break new ground, you’ll often find resistance. It’s an old story, but it was very true in my case,” she says. “I got resistance from all kinds of quarters, from journalists and really everybody. Also, being a woman in technology, I just was not taken seriously. I literally had to form my own company in order to push the field forward.”
Advancing the field remains as much a goal for de la Peña today as it was at the beginning. One of her latest innovations is REACH.Love, a software tool that allows users to create volumetric content by clicking on-screen buttons. Since it doesn’t require any coding skills, REACH is bringing VR and its myriad storytelling possibilities to a broader public.
De la Peña is broadening her scope of impact through another venture as well. “I was tapped by Arizona State University (ASU) to direct a new program and center on narrative and emerging media based in downtown Los Angeles,” she says. “The exciting thing about working at ASU is that they have a real commitment to diversity and inclusion. It’s given me an opportunity to accelerate and scale a shift in demographics in an industry that has historically been very monocultural.”
No matter how much she adds to her plate, de la Peña still manages to carve out time for her own creative practice as a director. Emblematic Group’s documentary Please, Believe Me, about Lyme disease, premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival in 2022, and an upcoming project in partnership with the National Center for Civil and Human Rights will address the 1906 Atlanta Race Massacre.
As long as she has a full project lineup, de la Peña will never get bored. “A lot of people say that your work doesn’t have to define you. But if you’re running a company that’s your startup––and you’re passionate about it, which I certainly am––your work is who you are,” she says. “I love what I do, and it’s been a thrilling ride.”