Boat on river with power plants and steam in background

A storm surge caused by a hurricane in the Houston area is one scenario that USC students explored in their VR journalism class. (Photo/Jovrnalism USC Annenberg)


USC Annenberg team uses virtual reality to tell a potentially disastrous story

The advanced techniques help to create a VR experience based on an investigative project in Houston

December 02, 2016 Carren Jao

Someday a perfect storm will hit the Gulf Coast city of Houston. We don’t know when it will arrive. But we do know that when it finally does hit the country’s fourth largest city, it could result in thousands of lives lost, millions of dollars in damages and a paralyzed American economy — and little is being done to prepare for it.

With a nod to virtual reality journalism, a USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism professor and his students hoped to change that. Led to Texas by Robert Hernandez, the team worked on an immersive VR piece to accompany “Hell and High Water,” an investigative look at Houston’s vulnerabilities to hurricanes.

Produced by ProPublica and the Texas Tribune, “Hell and High Water” details the widespread destruction and catastrophic repercussions that could occur if a storm the size of 2008’s Hurricane Ike were to hit Houston. Visitors to their interactive story can read about the situation in Houston while running storm scenarios that visualize the effects of different surges on the city.

USC Annenberg’s contribution was to use virtual reality tools and techniques that would immerse an audience into the story. Hernandez and his class produced their work under the name JOVRNALISM.

“Our goal is to put you there,” Hernandez said. “Our hope is for you to really see and feel what this storm could mean for Houston and for the rest of the country.”

Being prepared

Hernandez and his team joined the project after Scott Klein, deputy managing editor of ProPublica, approached him for advice on using immersive journalism to shed light on hurricane preparedness.

With VR, we can help them see what it will be like to have a natural catastrophe bearing down on them.

Scott Klein

“One of the problems in raising awareness about hurricane dangers is that people have a hard time thinking about natural catastrophes when they’re not bearing down on them,” Klein said. “So we thought, with VR, we can help them see what it will be like to have a natural catastrophe bearing down on them. One thing led to another, and [Hernandez] developed a class to do some experiments and create the experiences.”

Hernandez and his crew of so-called jovrnalists spent class time forging a unique VR classroom experience through hands-on experimentation and collaboration. As part of the course, the group flew to Houston to put its classroom lessons to a real-world test. The project was made possible through partnerships between Hernandez and leading organizations, from the writers and editors at ProPublica and the Texas Tribune, to the Google News Lab and camera house Radiant Images, which provided the team’s gear.

With seven GoPro camera rigs, a laptop and an array of peripheral devices in tow, the team captured a Houston previously unknown to them.

“It was like riding down the set of Blade Runner in the daytime. There was fire and smoke stacks all around us,” said Kevin Tsukii ’16 about riding a boat down the Houston Ship Channel, one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes.

Trial and error

Like any intrepid news team, the jovrnalists jumped through several unexpected hoops to get the story.

“We got cops called on us,” Hernandez said. “One guy started yelling at me because he thought I had a bomb [it was actually a 360-degree camera]. One of our GoPro cameras died. But the students produced more than I could have imagined.”

Footage from the trip was added to the virtual reality piece along with interviews of scientists, local leaders and residents.

“You’ll be flying over Houston not just to get a pretty visual overview but a sense of how their areas relate to each other and why you should care,” Hernandez said.

“We’re still all trying to figure out what makes good 360 immersive storytelling,” he explained. “There’s a lot of trial and error. The ProPublica piece, I think, does a good job, but it’s not truly a stand-alone piece because you should still read the text to really understand the nuances.”

The piece will also be published on YouTube, Facebook, SamsungVR, GoPro and the JOVRNALISM site. While Hernandez believes these platforms do not showcase the full capabilities of interactive VR, they are crucial to reaching the widest possible audience. After all, almost everyone owns a smartphone, but few have access to expensive VR headsets.

“The point of journalism is to reach a larger community and inform a larger community. So we made some compromises to make it fit on this phone,” Hernandez said. “We could have done more higher-end things and just put it in Oculus Rift or HTC Vive, but we would dramatically lose our audience and engagement.”

Key contributors

USC has played a key role in the development of this latest wave of VR technology, especially its use in journalism. Among the key players: Nonny de la Pena, a former senior research fellow in immersive journalism at USC Annenberg who has been called the “Godmother of Virtual Reality,” and Palmer Luckey, a journalism student from California State University, Long Beach, who left his studies to develop the Oculus Rift while working at the USC School of Cinematic Arts.

“Los Angeles is the epicenter of all things VR, from gaming to Hollywood to hopefully journalism — and the center of that epicenter is USC,” Hernandez said. “If you go to any VR meetup, USC is the dominant player there.”

Hernandez is proud of the role he and his students have played in shaping the world of VR journalism and is optimistic about its future.

“With this piece, what’s really special is that ProPublica recognized us and proactively approached us about doing their piece and collaborating with them to do an immersive experience,” he said. “That shows a lot of respect and that we’re making a dent in this industry.”