Presenting Hell and High Water VR, from USC Annenberg, ProPublica and the Texas Tribune

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Presenting Hell and High Water VR, from USC Annenberg, ProPublica and the Texas Tribune

By Scott Green 

November 29, 2016

In March, ProPublica and the Texas Tribune published Hell and High Water, an interactive story that raised an alarm about Houston’s vulnerability to coastal storms. Now, a team the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism is launching a virtual-reality experience based on those stories. It’s called Hell and High Water VR.


The Houston Ship Channel is one of the country’s biggest petrochemical refining centers. It’s also home to storage tanks that contain billions of gallons of oil and toxic chemicals. The ProPublica/Tribune investigation drew on cutting-edge research and supercomputer-generated storm models to simulate a storm scientists say has about a 1 in 350 chance of hitting the channel in any given year.


Inspired by this story and the research, JOVRNALISM, a hackathon-style class at USC Annenberg led by Professor Robert Hernandez, set out to create an immersive VR experience based on the project.

Hernandez led graduate and undergraduate students to Houston during Spring Break 2016 to conduct original reporting based on the Hell and High Water investigation. They developed new immersive storytelling techniques to illustrate portions of the investigation they felt were ideally suited for virtual reality.

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After months of work, the students have produced Hell and High Water VR. There are many ways for you to experience it:

iPhone users, download the JOVRNALISM app:
Android users, download the Android version:

If you have a VR headset like Google Cardboard you can use it, but it’s not required.

You can also see it on your phone by going to YouTube. (This link should launch the YouTube app on your phone.)
The apps gather all the VR journalism work created so far by Hernandez’s students, including a 360-degree tour of Wallis Annenberg Hall, a VR portrait of the Angel City Derby Girls, and other immersive pieces. Hernandez calls these “phase one” experiences, with a touch of storytelling. Hell and High Water is the beginning of phase two, which he sees as narrative feature storytelling in a VR environment.

“What I’ve tried to do with my courses is be proactive,” Hernandez said. “Instead of waiting for VR to be widely adopted, and other tech companies to take over and redefine journalism storytelling in that space, I want to empower my students to do that.

“By the time this technology goes mainstream, we’ve already figured out the first drafts of VR journalism. We’re the R&D for the industry. The work we’re doing is going to propel the industry forward.”

Development of the apps was funded in part by a grant Hernandez received from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.


SOURCE University of Southern Californiaʼs Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism

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