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lunedì 26 gennaio 2015


Hunger in Los Angeles is what writer and director Nonny de la Peña calls "immersive journalism." The concept is simple: place individuals into a virtual recreation of a given moment in time, allowing them to experience — and draw conclusions — firsthand. 

The original intent of the piece was to create something focused on the growing hunger problem in the United States. Her colleague Michaela Kobsa-Mark went out into the field to record audio of people standing in line outside a downtown food bank, only to witness — and record — the diabetic man collapsing and the eventual arrival of paramedics. It changed the trajectory of her piece, giving it a much more immediate emotional hook.
To take the journey, you don headphones and a set of head-mounted VR goggles. (Oculus founder Palmer Luckey was a member of the MxR lab when Hunger was created, and worked on the prototype goggles used in the project before leaving to start his own venture). Sticking out of the top of the apparatus is a pole and set of crossbars, each tipped with a red light. A series of Phasespace motion-capture cameras line the room, and together the system allows you to walk around and explore the virtual environment as if you were there with complete freedom (save the cable tethering you to the computer, that is).
I’ve tried the Oculus Rift before, and marvelled at its ability to transport you into a virtual space . I was able to take a Gravity-style virtual tour of the International Space Station’s exterior thanks to Richard Emms’Spacewalk
That all changed with Hunger in Los Angeles.
Nonny de la Peña, the woman pioneering a new form of journalism that aims to place viewers within news stories via virtual reality. That vision has culminated in Emblematic Group, her content- and VR hardware-focused company that she runs along with her brother in Los Angeles.
De la Peña's resume runs the gamut, including work on documentary films, television dramas and a longtime stint as a correspondent for Newsweek. But her name almost always surfaces in connection with the boy billionaire, Oculus VR founder Palmer Luckey, who served as her intern and provided a prototype Oculus Rift when she debuted Hunger in LA at the Sundance Film Festival in 2012. That first VR piece was displayed at New Frontier, an exhibit within the festival that focuses on works that meld technology, art and filmmaking. Hunger served as an entry point to De la Peña's brand of immersive journalism as it dealt with the true story of a diabetic's collapse due to starvation while waiting in line at a food bank in Los Angeles.
"Back in 2012 when I launched Hunger in LA, I was still considered such a weirdo," she explains. "I had colleagues literally pointing their finger at me and saying, 'You can't do that. That doesn't work. It's not ethical. It's too subjective.' And I got so much criticism. It was really difficult."
De la Peña chalks up much of that early anxiety and resistance to the medium's newness, as well as the transformations surrounding traditional notions of journalism. She concedes it was a scary time for old-guard journos that felt like "their lives were being threatened by digital technologies." The introduction of an additional technological layer, virtual reality, certainly didn't ease those fears either.
Now, her work is being funded by the likes of the University of Southern California (where she's studying for her doctorate), Tribeca Film Institute, Google, Associated Press and the World Economic forum, which commissioned this year's exhibit, Project Syria.
A fully immersive sociopolitical work that utilizes computer-generated graphics, as opposed to live action with human actors, Syria places Sundance attendees within the aforementioned Arab country where the experience moves through three distinct moments: a calm street scene, a sudden bombing and a camp for refugee children. It's a testament to the alternate hardware approach De la Peña's taken with her VR hardware that Syria really allows the viewer to feel transported into another reality.
Where Oculus' dev kits continue to focus on a standalone headset experience with inbuilt audio and inward- and outward-facing, camera-based tracking, De la Peña's custom hardware opts for a higher-end, albeit more cumbersome, setup. That approach incorporates phase-tracking, separate headphones and an external, body-worn pouch housing crucial processing circuitry.
"I love Oculus, but it's a sit-down experience. They don't really want you walking around," says De la Peña. "And I can spend $3,000 on my goggles instead of $300 right now. Right? I can get higher-end components to make it crisper and get a wider field of view. And I can set up my own tracking system. This is a phase-based tracking system, which I have to tell you, is still one of the best in the world. You know what? It's really good."
De la Peña's vision for the fledgling startup company she's founded with her brother (the man responsible for creating the vast majority of her hardware) is nothing if not ambitious. With a deep background in media, she's confident Emblematic can become a content juggernaut covering everything from entertainment stories to tech stories to general news and human rights pieces. At present, she's even deep in development with a major Hollywood director on an unspecified fiction project, in addition to working with The GuardianBBC and Al-Jazeera.
it's almost as if De la Peña envisions Emblematic becoming a sort of virtual reality news network -- think: the CNN of VR
In the near-term, however, Emblematic is gearing up to release an affordable VR viewer. Think of it as Emblematic's competitor to Google Cardboard. Zig Zag, as she and her brother have deemed it, is a collapsible VR viewer that, when closed, resembles a hard, plastic eyeglass case. De la Peña showed it off to me during our interview and admitted that it was "hot off the 3D printer this week."
Zig Zag works much like Gear VR and Cardboard in that it requires the use of an Android phone to power the experience. The actual "hardware," however, apart from its lenses, which she independently sources, contains no moving parts or processor; it relies entirely on the smartphone to power the experience. And, unlike Google's flimsy Cardboard, it's durable. "It's not going to break or bend," she says.
Ultimately, De la Peña would like to distribute Zig Zag through Emblematic's site, but she's also considering a Kickstarter campaign and is in talks with an unnamed partner that's interested in ordering 10,000 units. She's confident that Emblematic can offer Zig Zag for a relatively inexpensive price.
While De la Peña is focused on the high end, she sees opportunities for devices like Zig Zag to work in conjunction with the 3D-imaging tech in Google's Project Tango. That technology is where De la Peña sees VR inevitably headed on the consumer end. "Right now, we're looking at 360-[degree] video as very realistic stuff and I'm still doing a lot of CGI stuff," De la Peña says. "They're gonna merge. And we're already merging it now. You're going to use your Project Tango on your phone and you're gonna just res-up a scene you just [scanned]. And it's gonna turn into a 3D model right away that people can see. That is for sure the future."
The novelty of the medium may have initially aroused disdain from her peers, but De la Peña doesn't think the world at large will throw up the same level of resistance to VR. She points to her young children as examples of digital natives that don't fear technology. They've already become accustomed to living in virtual gaming worlds like that of Minecraft. And, besides, she insists the technology's already matured enough to the point where it's no longer considered a moonshot; it's already practical for consumer use.

The Godmother of Virtual Reality: Nonny de la Peña  | @jrvolpe | January 24th 2015

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