USC students produce compelling, 360-video journalism with Tour Creator and other VR tools

JOVRNALISM™ is a virtual reality (VR) journalism project based at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. Students from various disciplines and backgrounds use VR tools such as Tour Creator while reporting groundbreaking video news stories.

Robert Hernandez, Associate Professor of Professional Practice at USC’s Annenberg School, began teaching a course called JOVRNALISM in 2015. (Pronounced “jo-ver-nalism,” it embeds “VR” in journalism.) Students come from many disciplines, backgrounds, and nations, and from both graduate and undergraduate programs. “They’re diverse, curious misfits with a strong work ethic to make innovative experiences” Hernandez says. “These are fantastic students who merge three disciplines: storytelling, arts, and engineering.” JOVRNALISM is a hackathon-style journalism course in which the students pitch ideas for in-depth projects. The class then chooses one complex project with multiple angles to work on per semester.

JOVRNALISM relies heavily on VR as a reporting tool. Turning Tides: The Story of the Salton Sea, for instance, used 360-degree video, drones, and computer graphics for a seven-part immersive series that explored the stories and communities that surround the inland sea. The Deported: Life Beyond the Border used 360-degree video and illustrations in a similar five-part immerse series, now available on iOS and Android apps and on Oculus Go. “Each person the students listened to made an impact on them,” Hernandez said in a USC Annenberg blogpost about The Deported. “They gained a newfound understanding of their citizenship, their freedom and the opportunities they have as journalists to tell these types of stories.”

A watercolor drawing of what appears to be the entrance to a campus

His JOVRNALISM students play in the big leagues, having collaborated with numerous media partners. These have included the New York Times, NBC, National Public Radio, ProPublica, USA Today, the Desert Sun, and KCRW. Turning Tides won a prestigious Online Journalism Award™ from the Online News Association in 2017. The Deported was an Online Journalism Award finalist in 2018.

Students develop new VR techniques

Hernandez includes Google tools among the technologies in the JOVRNALISM toolkit. “I’ve incorporated Tour Creator as part of my Intro to 360/VR production workshops, to offer a set of accessible—a.k.a. free—tools to those interested in creating immersive content,” he says. “After we published The Deported, we converted our video into a tour via screenshots.” The VR tour offers six evocative, 360-degree views of places that are important to the story, with embedded information describing various objects, histories, and people. Hernandez has published the tour for others to explore in Poly, Google's 3D object library. Tour Creator, he adds, is “an incredible tool because it offers a free option to allow people to test immersive storytelling. And it’s done by Google, which give this much more weigh and validity.”

Learning to embrace VR technologies

“What we're trying to do is learn and embrace new technology,” Hernandez says. “And here's the thing: It depends on the story. What's the best way we can use technologies to genuinely tell the story, and not use them as gimmicks?”

Most of the JOVRNALISM students arrive with no previous experience in journalism. Yet what they produce is “incredibly powerful, beautiful, and innovative,” Hernandez says. The VR technologies evolve just as the students do. Tour Creator, for example, has “a ton of potential,” he adds. “It’s an incredible tool because it offers a free option for people to test immersive storytelling. Google's innovation in this space has a pivotal role in developing and growing community/industry.”

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