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Virtual Reality Meets Documentary: A Deeper Look

Thursday, May 5, 2016 @ 5:00 pm

(Note updated location: Stata Center, Room 123)

“In this case [of virtual reality], we do have a technology, but we don’t have any clear idea how to fill it with content.” – Werner Herzog

When Time Magazine graced its cover with Oculus Rift inventor Palmer Luckey’s awkward pose, it effectively proclaimed that VR was “the next big thing” that didn’t have any place in our lives yet.  Google, Facebook, The New York Times, PBS Frontline, Sundance Film Institute and many others are investing heavily in virtual reality as a powerful new storytelling medium. It’s capturing the imagination of documentary storytellers all over the world yet for all its enthusiasts, virtual reality has its skeptics. For all virtual reality is talked about, it can be deeply misunderstood.

Virtual reality means many things to many people: an immersive experience, a new tool for storytelling, a cluster of quite different technologies and techniques, and even an epistemological claim.  Little wonder that we lack consensus about “how to fill it with content.”

The goal of this panel is to talk with some of the leading creators in the VR space and better understand VR’s potentials and implications for documentary and journalism. This will help us to disambiguate some of the major strands of VR and in so doing consider the inherent tensions in VR between documentation and simulation, the challenges of spatial storytelling and new narrative structures, the ethics and cognitive neuroscience of immersion, interaction, and affect; and VR’s past and future.


Raney Aronson-Rath runs FRONTLINE, PBS’s flagship investigative journalism series, and is a leading voice on the future of journalism. She has been internationally recognized for her work to expand FRONTLINE’s reporting capacity and reimagine the documentary form across multiple platforms. From the emergence of ISIS in Syria to the hidden history of the NFL and concussions to the secret reality of rape on the job for immigrant women, Aronson-Rath oversees FRONTLINE’s acclaimed reporting and directs the series’ evolution and editorial vision. She has developed and managed nearly 30 in-depth, cross-platform journalism partnerships with outlets including ProPublica, The New York Times, and Univision. Under her leadership, FRONTLINE has won every major award in broadcast journalism and dramatically expanded its digital footprint. Prior to FRONTLINE, Aronson-Rath worked at ABC News, The Wall Street Journal, and MSNBC. She earned her bachelor’s degree from the University of Wisconsin and her master’s from Columbia Journalism School.

Katy Morrison is co-Founder and producer at Virtual Reality studio VRTOV and makes virtual reality and immersive story experiences for non-fiction stories. Shaped by her experience working as a documentary maker, Katy’s interest is in subjectivity, identity and spatiality in an increasingly virtual and interconnected world. Previously Katy worked in documentary television as a researcher, writer and producer and has made over fifty hours of internationally broadcast documentary television as well as augmented reality apps, virtual reality experiences and immersive story installations. In addition to producing Virtual Reality, VRTOV regularly run workshops, speak at festivals and facilitate hands-on engagement with VR production techniques for broadcasters and media companies.

Nonny de la Peña was selected by Wired Magazine as a #MakeTechHuman Agent of Change and has been called “The Godmother of Virtual Reality” by Engadget and The Guardian. Additionally, Fast Company named her “One of the People Who Made the World More Creative.” for her pioneering work in immersive storytelling. As CEO of Emblematic Group, she uses cutting edge technologies to tell important stories—both fictional and news-based—that create intense, empathic engagement on the part of viewers. A Yale Poynter Media Fellow and a former correspondent for Newsweek, de la Peña has more than 20 years of award-winning experience in print, film and TV. De la Peña is widely credited with helping create the genre of immersive journalism and her virtual reality work has been featured by the BBC, Mashable, Vice, Wired and many others.  Showcases around the globe include the Sundance and Tribeca Film Festivals, The World Economic Forum in Davos, The Victoria and Albert Museum, Moscow Museum of Modern Art, and Games For Change.

Caspar Sonnen is a festival organiser and curator specialised in independent cinema and digital media art. As New Media Coordinator of the International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam, he has successfully developed digital festival strategies and online initiatives. In 2008, Sonnen launched IDFA DocLab, a pioneering platform for digital documentary storytelling and media art. IDFA DocLab is also one of the organising partners of PhotoStories. Besides his work at IDFA, Sonnen is co-founder and programmer of the Open Air Film Festival Amsterdam.


Thursday, May 5, 2016
5:00 pm
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MIT Building 32 (Stata Center), Room 123
32 Vassar Street
Cambridge, MA 02139 United States
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Andrew Whitacre Written by Andrew Whitacre