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How the 'Godmother of Virtual Reality' Pioneered a Field in the Face of Adversity

INC 2018-03-14 04:03:28

After Nonny de la Peña graduated high school in California, she moved out East to attend Harvard. She excelled in a coding class, but saw a future where she'd perpetually be the only woman in the room.

De la Peña's decision to shift course would set her  on a pioneering career trajectory. In a keynote speech Tuesday at the South by Southwest conference in Austin, she retraced that path and recounted the adversity she faced along the way.

After graduation de la Peña established herself as a journalist, working for Time and Newsweek, among other publications, before working on documentary films and television projects. By 2007, a grant from the MacArthur Foundation and the Bay Area Video Coalition allowed her to expand a project investigating the Guantanamo Bay detention camp. She opted to create a detention center in the online virtual environment Second Life, replete with an information "black hole" through which users' (or, more precisely, their avatars') requests for due process were denied.

Around this time, de la Peña said, she became determined to augment her programming abilities, and again enrolled in a coding class. She was met by a room full of more than 30 men. She stayed in it, jokingly admitting later that it might not have been that fun for the men, either. She said one remarked at the time, to another: "Hey, dude, you have to come to my party tonight! There's going to be real girls there."

Armed with more technical prowess, de la Peña paired it with her narrative storytelling work, and created a innovative virtual reality short that was featured at the Sundance Film Festival, in which viewers could immerse themselves into a scene of a Los Angeles street. (De la Peña and her team needed to create their own headsets so festival-goers could experience it.) A soup pantry line is in their view, and within moments, a diabetic man in the line collapses. Real audio from a reporter is paired with the reconstructed scene.  

Also along the way de la Peña founded a narrative virtual reality studio, Emblematic, which has developed an immersive film with PBS Frontline documenting glacial melting in Greenland, and a project commissioned by the World Economic Forum called "Project Syria," documenting bombings and bloodshed there.

Now established in her field, she related, she was invited to a meeting of entrepreneurs in Britain, which took them to an event with British royalty. At a dinner, she was ushered to a seat near former Google executive chairman Eric Schmidt and other tech luminaries, all men. Seated across from her would be Prince William. She shied away--and instead took a seat at the end of the table.

"I used to blame myself for being a coward," she said. But then she cited some discouraging numbers, including that just 2 percent of venture capital funding goes to female founders. It all leads to the feeling, she said, that "you don't feel like you should be sitting across from Prince William."

Since that time though, de la Pena has received validation in the form of a vast array of awards and praise. Forbes dubbed her the "godmother of virtual reality," Fast Company named her one of its most creative people, and for 2018 she was named a New America Fellow. While she did not mention the phrase "inclusion rider" in her talk, she did mention her latest battle in confronting the worlds of film and technology. It's a common one--seeking funding--but one that due to her gender, as she noted, puts her in a small minority.