A group of students went to Echo Park last year to take photos of the homeless’ tents and made a 3D model, so people can have a virtual tour of the tents in their living room. That was a project of JOVRNALISM, an immersive journalism class taught by USC professor Robert Hernandez.
JOVRNALISM is a hackathon-style class where students use emerging technologies to produce the stories of an underserved community, Hernandez said. This semester, JOVRNALISM’s new project will produce stories of foster youth.
“[Students] are going to get experiences producing 360 video of these underserved, underrepresented community, in this case, the foster care system,” Hernandez told Annenberg Media. “It was a really powerful moment for the students as well as the community we were working with.”
For the new project, JOVRNALISM partners with PBS SoCal’s To Foster Change and Peace4Kids, a non-profit organization that aims to build a supportive and warm community for foster youth in South Los Angeles.
Peace4Kids has provided mentor programs, leadership programs, and family meals to teach and care for foster youth, according to its website.
“We work very intensely with transitional age youth (age 16 to high school graduation) and we thought it would be best to highlight their stories using the virtual reality platform,” said Miriam Cortez-Cáceres, the program coordinator at Peace4Kids.
The project aims to produce foster youth’s stories through emerging technologies such as virtual reality(VR) and Snapchat augmented reality(AR) lenses, according to Hernandez.
VR engages people with immersion in another reality while AR enables people to “stay present in this reality but enhances it through digital assets,” Hernandez said.
Hernandez set up the project by contacting Mira Zimet, the chief creative content officer at USC Annenberg who is also a board member at Peace4Kids. Zimet presented the project to Peace4Kids, and they decided to partner with JOVRNALISM in this project. Samsung donated cameras to help make the kit for the project, Hernandez said.
The uniqueness of this project also lies in students’ high involvement in the whole project. Hernandez said he’s only the editor who guides the project, while students are the main producers of the stories.
“I guide the story, but we are the crews that decide what story we are going to make and how we make it,” Hernandez said.
Students are able to learn to scan the objects, create models using augmented reality, shoot footage for 360 videos and finally produce their own stories partnering with foster youth participants from Peace4Kids, Hernandez said.
“I train you on how to do 360 video, introduce you to photogrammetry, how to create models, how to produce experiences including augmented reality,” Hernandez said.
One of the JOVRNALISM students Yuwei “Ria” Xi, a junior majoring in computer sciences, said she and her partners brainstorm the structure of the 360 video footage, and then they make a voice-over to tell a foster youth’s story.
"We teamed up and we were covering a girl who has interest for rap, [who] also has this foster care background," Xi said. "She actually went to a recording studio... to record her rap song, and we want to record that in 360 video."
Connor Ling, a student majoring in cinema and media studies, said he has never had access to these emerging technologies, which he wants to learn from this JOVRNALISM class.
“I definitely want to learn the technology a little bit more and get some hands-on experience with it," Ling said. "I also want to have the opportunity to work on a project where it's... a collaborative effort to tell several stories."
Cortez-Cáceres, the program coordinator at Peace4Kids, said people generally don’t have a positive impression about the foster care system, so she hopes this project can bring about a different perspective of foster care to the public.
“In a survey of the foster care system, the top five responses were negative,” Cortez-Cáceres said. “This journalism project helps us find a strategic way to portray some of the faces of foster care in a unique way.”
Bringing public attention to foster care, an underrepresented community, is also Hernandez’s motivation and expectation for this project, he said.
“Instead of just doing whatever, by partnering up with an underserved community or picking a theme, they produce real journalism often for the underserved and underrepresented communities,” Hernandez said. “By using these emerging technologies, they have a new life.”
All the emerging technologies, including augmented reality, virtual reality, and mixed reality, belong to extended reality (XR). Hernandez said he deeply believes in the future of XR journalism, since people are moving from “story-telling to story-living.”
“You are not consuming or watching a story passively. You are now in the story interacting with these people and objects holding presence in the communities that you may not have access to, and really feeling a different level of engagement,” Hernandez said. “It is inevitable, it is the future, it is something that we need to wake up to and figure out how to tell stories in these different ways.”
Students can register for this class (JOUR-489) after getting D-clearance from the Annenberg advisement office and passing the one-on-one meeting with Hernandez to test for technical skills.
“Some people want a textbook with structure and all the answers already figured out, but that is not this class,” Hernandez said. “This class is ‘we are inventing the wheels’ not ‘reinventing the wheels.’”
Correction made October 21, 9:02 p.m.: a previous version of the story incorrectly spelled Mira Zimet’s name.
Correction made October 24, 6:22 p.m.: a previous version of the story incorrectly stated that JOVRNALISM partners with "KCET broadcasts” instead of “PBS SoCal’s To Foster Change.” The previous version also stated that “Hernandez said he used his research funds and grant from USC to buy devices for students and participants.” This sentence refers to last semester’s “Homeless Reality” project. For the foster care project, Samsung donated the cameras.