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 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.
“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.”