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Journalism Project Slated for Sundance Film Festival

Journalism Project Slated for Sundance Film Festival
A man falls into a diabetic coma in a sequence from "Hunger in Los Angeles."

An experimental immersive journalism project that began at the USC Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism has been selected to appear at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival.

“Hunger in Los Angeles” was written, produced and directed by Nonny de la Peña, a USC Annenberg Program on Online Communities alumna in 2009 and former USC Annenberg senior research fellow. The work is scheduled to be part of the “New Frontier” portion of the Utah-based festival.

“It didn’t feel real until recently when I received my contract,” de la Peña said. “This crazy idea that I’ve been trying to get off the ground for two years.”

De la Peña’s six-and-a-half minute interactive news piece allows one user at a time to enter a virtual-reality, gaming-style environment set in the midst of a food bank distribution line located outside the First Unitarian Church in downtown Los Angeles.

During the eventful – and nonfiction – segment, chaos occurs when someone tries to steal food. Meanwhile, a man in line falls to the ground in a diabetic coma as an ambulance and two paramedics arrive to assist.

The piece, like de la Pena’s other works and writing, explores the difference between the objective and the subjective. It also re-imagines ways of creating and delivering contemporary journalism.

The project was crafted in part by using video-game development and 3-D platform software, a head-mounted display and an audio recording made in 2009 by a student intern as part of “Hunger in the Golden State,” an effort led by USC Annenberg journalism professor Sandy Tolan.

“I wouldn’t have started this project had it not been for an Annenberg endeavor already in place,” de la Peña said. “Secondly, just in general by [USC Annenberg] supporting me as a research fellow, I was able to have the freedom to explore these ideas in a way that there’s little room in the real world to do.”

Users of de la Peña’s “Hunger” don an equipment-laden backpack, a multisensor helmet and an antistatic wristband. Users, at least in the currently wired system, are escorted around the real-world warehouse by a technician who makes certain that the user does not get tangled in any cords or bump into walls or furniture. (None of the above is visible or apparent inside the virtual environment.)

The movements of “Hunger” users in the immersive world trigger actions by the “virtual humans.” Approaching one of the paramedics, for example, results in that character delivering an idiosyncratic variation of a familiar crowd-control message.

“Hunger” was created, de la Peña said, with a scant budget of $350 – as well as a large commitment of her own time and those of others, such as Bradley Newman, the project’s lead artist and programmer.

De la Peña also sought out and received donations of hardware and software attributes, such as the virtual humans that a firm provided to populate the food line with seemingly life-size anthropomorphic figures.

(While the incident’s audio is culled from 90 minutes of recordings made on the food line, and the buildings on the streetscape are reasonable facsimiles or better, the characters on the food line do not resemble the real people who were there that day.)

“Hunger” currently is being tested and tinkered with at USC’s Institute for Creative Technologies’ McConnell Facility, whose MxR Lab also supports the project.

Approximately 40 motion-caption cameras hang overhead in the portion of the skunk works-style warehouse where the project is physically based. At least 24 of those cameras will be relocated and installed at Sundance, de la Peña said.

The project will be on exhibition at Sundance’s Park City home from Jan. 20-28. Then the piece, along with others in the “New Frontier” showcase, will reside at the Salt Lake City Art Center through May 19.

“Hunger” is not de la Peña’s first effort at avant-garde journalism. The former Newsweek correspondent previously co-created “Gone Gitmo,” which introduced Guantanamo Bay into Second Life, a popular online, multiplayer environment.

De la Peña also co-founded Stroome.com, an entrepreneurial online collaborative video-editing site that won a two-year, $200,000 Knight News Challenge Award.

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