Public relations and advertising master’s student Rafiat Animashaun uses the LiDAR scanner on an iPad Pro to capture a vintage plane at the March Field Air Museum in Riverside, Calif.
Photo by Robert Hernandez

Students use immersive tech to tell compelling stories of the past and present

Loop-the-loops, spiral dives and barrel rolls. In the skies above California, Katherine Sui Fun Cheung began wowing crowds with her daredevil aviation stunts in the early 1930s. But her sheer determination to succeed in that male-dominated profession was even more awe-inspiring. At the time, only 1% of licensed American pilots were women, and Cheung was 1% of that 1% as the first Chinese woman licensed to fly a plane in the United States.

This past Spring, USC Annenberg students not only told Cheung's story, but used immersive technology to bring that story to life. Professor Robert Hernandez’s JOVRNALISM class collaborated with ABC Owned Television Stations to produce “Barnstorming Through Barriers: The Katherine Cheung Story,” which ran on ABC-owned stations’ sites and social media platforms in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Philadelphia, Houston, San Francisco, Raleigh-Durham, and Fresno.

As part of the “JOUR 527: Advanced Disruption: Innovation with Emerging Technology” course, students teamed up with ABC Owned Television Stations in its production of “Our America: Hidden Stories,” an initiative that leverages immersive reporting techniques to address racial disparities and highlight little-known histories of marginalized communities’ contributions to America, such as Cheung’s and others across Los Angeles. 

Professor of Professional Practice Robert Hernandez created and has taught the JOVRNALISM course since 2015, bringing together students from different backgrounds to apply an emerging technology to a story or theme that have ranged from domestic abuse to homelessness.

For journalism master’s student Mari Young, centering the project on Cheung provided an opportunity to spotlight an Asian American woman who was a pioneer in her field.

“It was so cool to create a historical piece using immersive technology,” said Young, who has been named USC Annenberg’s Emerging Technologies Fellow for 2021–22. “It allowed us to go back in time and tell a richer story with interesting contrasts between then and now.”

Using 360-degree views of March Field Air Museum in Riverside, the Flight Path Walk of Fame in Westchester, and Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Hollywood Hills as their backdrops, the student journalists bring the fascinating details of Cheung’s story to life as they seamlessly integrate archival images and interviews with historians Janet Bednarek and Greg Kuster; documentarian Ed Moy; and Julie Wang, the first Chinese pilot to fly solo around the world.

Hernandez explained that Jason Potts, senior manager of innovation and operations for ABC Owned Television Stations, initially reached out about a collaboration as the network sought to not only tell stories about diversity and inclusion, but to innovate while doing it. While the class identified and pitched different ideas, Hernandez said when they had to select one, Cheung’s was the perfect match. 

“Partnering with ABC Owned Television Stations to amplify Katherine’s story was a privilege, and I hope this will open doors for more remarkable stories of minority trailblazers within media,” said Rafiat Animashaun, a master’s student in public relations and advertising who was part of the team.

Potts was equally enthusiastic about the collaboration.

“I was extremely impressed with the caliber of work produced by Professor Hernandez’s students,” Potts said. “They managed to transform old file footage and archival photos into an immersive piece that felt vibrant and alive.”

Last month, Hernandez and another group of journalism students worked with USC Viterbi lecturer Vangelis Lympouridis and a group of engineering and game design students to launch “Beyond The Diorama.” The interactive, extended-reality experience brings the iconic caribou diorama at the Los Angeles County Natural History Museum into users’ living rooms to illustrate how climate change is threatening the animal’s habitat.

With support from USC Sol Price Center for Social Innovation’s Wicked Problems Practicum, Hernandez said the interdisciplinary, cross-school team set and achieved their ambitious goals despite the challenges brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Our simple goal was to try to make the impact of the climate crisis less abstract and more real by making the analog dioramas come alive through augmented and virtual reality,” he said.

This Fall, his JOVRNALISM class will continue its ongoing “Who We Are” series in which students train and empower members of underserved and underrepresented communities to tell their own stories using 360-degree camera kits.

In 2020, JOVRNALISM students worked with the East Los Angeles Women's Center, providing survivors of domestic abuse with cameras donated by Samsung and video-stitching software donated by SGO so they could document their lives and perspectives. The result was “More than Survivors,” which features self-portraits of four women who discovered ways to continue to flourish in the face of trauma. 

For journalism major Franchesca “Frankie” Baratta, working with the center offered students from different majors the opportunity to exercise some of their own expertise while learning something completely new.

“Many Annenberg classes teach their students about the importance of engagement and finding ways to serve your community as a journalist,” Baratta said. “This project was a real-life piece of work where we were able to do exactly that.”

This latest collaboration builds upon past “Who We Are” class projects that have engaged Los Angeles’ homeless and foster youth.

Homeless Realities” included a three-day workshop held in 2018 at the Los Angeles Central Library in which Hernandez and his students trained 11 individuals experiencing homelessness to use video, augmented reality and photogrammetry to capture the unique obstacles they face living in unstable housing. 

For “Finding Home,” students teamed up with local nonprofit Peace4Kids in 2019 to train current and former foster youth on how to use 3D cameras and the Snapchat Lens Studio to create unique augmented reality experiences.

“Our student journalists don’t parachute into the community to co-opt stories,” Hernandez said. “Instead, they work alongside the community and help produce the stories members want to share through emerging technologies.”

The JOVRNALISM team’s innovative approaches to community-based journalism have also garnered national acclaim. Over the last five years, they’ve been recognized with Webby Awards in the People’s Voice and Student Advertising, Media and PR categories, and the Online News Association’s Pro-Am Student Award.

For two consecutive years, JOVRNALISM was named the national winner of the Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ) Mark of Excellence Awards in immersion journalism for "Homeless Realities” and “Finding Home”. In addition, “Homeless Realities” was selected among all 3,100 entries as the winner of SPJ’s MOEy Best in Show for 2019. “Finding Home” was also honored with ONA’s 2020 David Teeuwen Student Journalism Award

Most recently, the group has been named as a finalist in two professional categories and one student category for the Los Angeles Press Club's 2021 SoCal Journalism Awards.

While Hernandez feels great pride for what he and his students have created, he is also quick to point out that it’s not about the awards. “What inspires us most is the recognition, across our profession, that immersive technology can be used by journalists to help build bridges and democratize the consumption and the creation of storytelling,” he said.

Sarah Wolfson contributed reporting.