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At Sundance, 'Project Syria' Puts Viewers In Center Of Conflict


We're going to hear now about "Project Syria," one of the virtual reality experiences that Mandalit just mentioned. The director calls it immersive journalism. The experience takes the audience to the city of Aleppo, albeit a computer-generated Aleppo, and recreates a mortar attack.


SIEGEL: Nonny de la Pena is the director of "Project Syria." Welcome to the program.

NONNY DE LA PENA: Thank so much for hosting me.

SIEGEL: And you have to describe this. If I were in Sundance - seeing what you've done here - I'd put on a pair of goggles with earphones and I just - I'd be in a room walking around where I could experience this scene from Aleppo?

DE LA PENA: That's correct. And when you're walking around the street it's actually changing the imagery one-for-one to match wherever you look, bend, kneel, jump. So that's why it so accurately conveys the sensation of being present on scene.

SIEGEL: The sensation is powerful. The simple question - is it journalism? Is walking and experiencing computer-generated images the same thing as seeing a documentary film you might have made or read an article you might have written for Newsweek?

DE LA PENA: I would certainly argue that, you know, ultimately text is just lines on a page, right? And that to say that a computer-generated imagery isn't going to have some accuracy to it, you know, I think it's disingenuous. So despite the fact that it's computer-generated - and I can tell you that the 3D modeling is getting better much more quickly and that the capturing of scenes is going to get much more photo-real, and it's really up to us journalists to understand what are the best practices for these new spatial narratives?

SIEGEL: So you're saying that if I'm experiencing - if I'm seeing even computer-generated images of people, if they get more realistic and they're closer to the actual image of those people, you're saying that at some point its not different from actually seeing a film taken of them as they were, what they were doing at that moment.

DE LA PENA: You know, I would say that we know that each platform has a different - conveys a different feeling. Newspapers differ from radio, radios differ from television. This is just a brand new platform, and the experience is going to offer different affordances. This is going to have different things that perhaps might not be considered as acceptable by today's standards, but later on we'll understand that there's a real value to telling stories in this way.

SIEGEL: Yeah. Applying today's standards, we would say that the degree of manipulation of the image for photography would be out of bounds. We wouldn't accept that as news photography.

DE LA PENA: That might be the case, but I think that the overall sense of the re-creation would be acceptable certainly in documentary film. And with that background that I have I applied the same sort of techniques that I would when I was trying to re-create a scene that perhaps was not captured on camera, and I think that there's a lot of best practices that documentarians use to make sure that something's accurate and I try to bring those to bear in the virtual environment.

SIEGEL: If one person sees it at one time - are we talking about in effect a museum exhibition as the medium of showing this or could you ever imagine reaching a mass audience this way?

DE LA PENA: Quite easily. There are certain stories that will lend themselves to immersive journalism to be done on a mobile phone within a 48 hours - or certainly within a news cycle. I always cite the Trayvon Martin case as an example. The condo was a cookie-cutter building. It's a dark rainy night. You can't see very well what's going on. George Zimmerman's SUV, I can buy it on one of the modeling sites, exact replica for 130 bucks. We could've had that story up and onto people's mobile phones with mobile viewers, like Google Cardboard, within 48 hours at the most. So yes, I think that it's going to no doubt affect the way that we get our news in the future.

SIEGEL: Nonny de la Pena, director of "Project Syria." Thank you very much.

DE LA PENA: I really appreciate you spending the time with me today.

SIEGEL: Nonny de la Pena spoke to us from the Sundance Festival in Park City, Utah. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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