‘Godmother of virtual reality’ joins ASU to build new L.A.-based program, center

June 16, 2021

Nonny de la Peña, dubbed the "Godmother of Virtual Reality” by Forbes and the Guardian, is joining Arizona State University to design and lead a new graduate program and center in emerging media and narrative based in Los Angeles.

Steven J. Tepper, dean of the Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts, said that de la Peña’s new role at ASU is the result of a challenge that ASU President Michael Crow issued jointly to the Herberger Institute and the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication: to imagine bringing something impactful and distinctive to the global capital of entertainment and storytelling, given the legacy of the Herald Examiner building as a center for media and storytelling and the activation of The Sidney Poitier New American Film School. black and white headshot of journalist Nonny de la Pena Nonny de la Peña is a leader in immersive journalism, a field that she is widely credited with establishing. Photo courtesy of Nonny de la Peña. Download Full Image

“There’s a convergence in journalism and film and other forms of storytelling,” Tepper said, “and so the question was, could we design something that would be innovative?”

Enter de la Peña.

A New American Fellow, Yale Poynter Media Fellow and former correspondent for Newsweek, de la Peña is a leader in immersive journalism, a field that she is widely credited with establishing. Her paper in the MIT journal Presence, “Immersive Journalism: Immersive Virtual Reality for the First-Person Experience of the News,” is the second most downloaded article in the journal’s history. She was named WSJ Technology Innovator of the Year in 2018 and one of CNET en Español’s 20 most influential Latinos for her groundbreaking work, and her TEDWomen talk, which describes the use of cutting-edge technologies for creating intense and empathic engagement on the part of viewers, has garnered upward of 1,300,000 views. The piece “Hunger in Los Angeles,” on which she collaborated, became the first VR piece ever shown at Sundance and inspired Wired Magazine to nominate her a “#MakeTechHuman Agent of Change.”

“Technology has the power to put people in the story, so they remember it with their body, not just their mind,” de la Peña said. “I’m joining ASU to build a program and a center in emerging media and narrative because I want to shift the demographics of who’s creating and using these new technologies. This new form of storytelling can offer a visceral and positive impact on our perception of the world, and we want the center to be a place that takes advantage of that potential while supporting anyone who wants to harness these creation tools to tell their own stories.”

“Nonny de la Peña’s fusion of gaming technologies with journalism is the most significant advancement in news since television in the 1950s. She’s a game-changer,” said Dianah Wynter, inaugural director of The Sidney Poitier New American Film School. “Collaborating with Nonny and (the Cronkite School) to build a center for our interactive programs will give students the opportunity to enhance their training in filmmaking, screenwriting and VFX with emerging trends in VR, MR and XR.”

De la Peña is tasked with tying the work in emerging media and narrative into programming and curriculum at ASU at Mesa City Center, a 118,000-square-foot facility that will open in downtown Mesa in fall 2022 and serve as a home for the film school as well as for new interdisciplinary degree programs based in extended reality and immersive media. 

De la Peña’s appointment is in both the Herberger Institute and the Cronkite School, and the L.A.-based program and center will be a collaborative effort between the two.

“Nonny de la Peña’s work is all about telling stories in new ways that help us better understand our world and each other,” said Kristin Gilger, interim dean of the Cronkite School. “This partnership with the Herberger Institute will give our students the opportunity to augment the skills they’ve acquired as journalists with powerful new approaches in technology and storytelling.”

De la Peña is the founder and CEO of Emblematic Group, a digital media company focused on immersive virtual, mixed and augmented reality. She earned a BA in sociology and visual and environmental studies from Harvard University, an MA in online communities from the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism at the University of Southern California, and a PhD in media arts and practice from the USC School of Cinematic Arts.

Update: Due to family reasons, Dianah Wynter did not take the position of director of The Sidney Poitier New American Film School. On Nov. 16, 2021, Cheryl Boone Isaacs was announced as the founding director of the school.

Deborah Sussman

Communications and media specialist, Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts


Army veteran ASU grad excited for career working with endangered species

June 16, 2021

Editor's note: This story is part of a series of profiles of notable spring 2021 graduates.

Did you know that the New Mexico meadow jumping mouse can grow to 7 to 9 inches long?  Obermeit collaring an elk calf in the White Mountains of Arizona Obermeit collaring an elk calf in the White Mountains of Arizona in May 2020. Download Full Image

ASU graduate and Phoenix native Tyler Obermeit does. Something else he knows about this small mouse is that it is, unfortunately, an endangered species. Shrinking habitat space has left these mice with few options for places they can call home.

Luckily though, for this species of mouse, Obermeit has recently been hired by Arizona Game and Fish to study them. Obermeit’s goal? To learn more about the mouse so that people can know what actions to take to keep it off the endangered species list. 

“It's a mouse that hibernates for nine months a year. So it has like three months to wake up, have babies and get enough food in that for the next winter. And they've been endangered pretty severely,” Obermeit said. 

During his time at ASU, spring 2021 graduate Obermeit studied natural resource ecology and wildlife tracking with a certificate in wildlife management. 

Before coming to ASU, Obermeit served in the U.S. Army as an infantryman. He was deployed to Afghanistan for a year and struggled to adapt to life back at home after experiencing combat for so long.

After taking a few different jobs and facing some hardship, Obermeit decided that going back to school would be the best fit for him. He chose to study at ASU, where he also joined TRIO Veterans Upward Bound, a program designed to help veteran students adjust to life as college students. 

His interest in the outdoors grew as he studied at ASU, and eventually he became interested in wildlife restoration. Obermeit also served as the president of ASU’s Wildlife and Restoration Student Association

“We are the joint student chapters of the Wildlife Society, the American Fisheries Society and the Society for Range Land Management,” Obermeit said. 

The association's mission is to inspire, empower and enable wildlife professionals to sustain wildlife populations and habitats through science-based management and conservation.

“What I've been trying to do for the past two years, as president of this club, is just to get students out there engaging hands-on with wildlife and wildlife professionals,” Obermeit said. 

Originally, Obermeit was a conservation biology and ecology major. After taking habitat management for a small wildlife class with Professor Stan Cunningham, he decided to pursue a certificate in wildlife management and joined the Wildlife and Restoration Student Association.

“He was really instrumental and convinced me to move over to this side of things where it was much more wildlife technician based, much more hands-on,” Obermeit said.

According to Obermeit, the student organization played a big role in how he got to where he is today. 

“The wildlife society has just been, you know, wonderful for me,” he said. 

As a first-generation student, Obermeit was aware of the importance of applying for scholarships. While at ASU he earned multiple scholarships, including from the national association of Veterans Upward Bound, Vietnam Veterans of America Mesa Chapter, Western Association of Education Opportunity Personnel and the New American University award

Question: What was your “aha” moment when you realized you wanted to study the field you majored in?

Answer: It was actually back when I was a conservation biology major. It was the first time I captured a black-footed ferret. And like having this thing in the cage, I'm like, "Oh my God, I'm holding an endangered species." And that was like what I do. That’s what I wanted to do for the rest of my life, is work with wildlife.

Q: What’s something you learned while at ASU — in the classroom or otherwise — that surprised you or changed your perspective?

A: I was really intimidated when I first enrolled at ASU because, you know, I'm like 29 years old, I graduated in 2009, I joined the Army. I've been out of the classroom, I think, eight years. And so I was very intimidated, especially in a STEM field, freshman year, when you’re taking these bio and chemistry courses that just wholesale fail out half the class, and I was terrified. 

I'm thinking, "Holy crap, here's all these honors students who are failing out." And then I ended up with an A+ in the class. And I think that's when I realized it's not this whole thing of how smart you are, it's how hard you work and what you put into it. And what put me at an advantage versus those other students is that I had a work ethic that was instilled in me from the military and working, you know, blue-collar jobs and stuff like that. I guess the thing is, it's like, there's nothing that hard work and dedication can’t accomplish.

Q: Why did you choose ASU?

A: I was looking at a list of majors of the three major schools … and when I saw the conservation biology and ecology major, I thought I could be a game warden with that degree and be involved in law enforcement. Not that I enjoy law enforcement. It's just that that seemed like an easy transition from military life and everything I was doing. I got involved, and I'm like, "I don't want to do law enforcement, I want to do research." So something where I'm interfacing more with wildlife and people. You know, that was always really attractive to me.

Q: What’s the best piece of advice you’d give to those still in school?

A: Well, there's a few things. One, if I would have gone to college when I was 18 years old, I would be on a completely different path. And I feel it's a little bit ridiculous to ask somebody at 18 years old what they want to do for the rest of their life, because I look back at an 18-year-old me and he was not very smart. One of the things is like, this isn’t high school anymore. The main thing is for students to take it seriously, but at the same time also not over-stress. You have to find that good balance but also dedicate yourself as if it was a full-time job.

Q: What are your plans after graduation?

A: I've just been hired with Arizona Game and Fish to be an intern working with an endangered species of mouse called the New Mexico meadow jumping mouse. …

And they've been endangered, pretty, pretty severely, and then they live in wetlands. And so what I do is I do track plating, I set up a box with some sticky paper and an ink pad and peanuts. And so the mouse comes in, eats the peanuts and leaves little red footprints. And then I go and I check the footprints and (with) trapping, you could potentially kill the animal if you lost that trap or they froze it out overnight. So this leaves footprints, and they have a very unique footprint. So I track mice, and I figure out where their habitat is. And it's in some of the most beautiful areas and remote areas of the White Mountains and these mountain meadows, and it's incredible. 

And so what I'm going to be doing is actually, I found some consistencies in the data as far as plant identification. So I’m going to help them draft a handbook on habitat management and plant identification in the White Mountains for this mouse.

Q: If someone gave you $40 million to solve one problem on our planet, what would you tackle?

A: I would pour that money probably into our forests. For example, the wildfires last year, that's not just a climate change thing, that is 100 years of bad forest policy of putting out every fire and ranching and all these other things. So I would put that military-level spending into maintaining our forests as to how they're supposed to exist in the natural state — and ecological restoration in general.

Written by Madeleine Williamson, ASU Student Life

Hannah Moulton Belec

Digital marketing manager, Educational Outreach and Student Services