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The Big Picture and Little Challenges

Graphics vendors push HD while refining their mobile strategy 5/19/2006 08:00:00 PM Eastern

The weather is changing—on television. Vendors are concentrating on enhancing high-definition capability and providing more-captivating radar and storm-tracking presentation tools. At the same time, technology is being finessed that will allow for weather information to be easily accessible on broadband and mobile platforms, where the challenge is to provide information in a very small space.

High-def is definitely drawing high interest. At last month's National Association of Broadcasters convention in Las Vegas, Baron Services, WSI and Weather Central all showed HD versions of their presentation systems for the first time, while AccuWeather (which has helped VOOM produce HD weather on its Newsbytes HD channel for the past two years) displayed a high-def version of its local-weather programming service. The HD graphics systems generally cost 30%-40% more than SD systems, which start at $60,000.

“There are two basic requests we're getting,” says WSI VP Bill Dow. “One is for an HD solution as stations are actively planning for the migration to support HD news. The larger markets will get the most play, from our perspective, and we think we'll be providing a solution to support both SD and HD for a long time. The second area is just being able to leverage content on a variety of different platforms. Whether it be the Web, cellphones or digital-media players, stations want to be taking content and easily repurposing it.”

TrueView HD is the high-def offering from Andover, Mass.-based WSI, a unit of Landmark Communications, which owns The Weather Channel. WSI has about 379 broadcast customers, and its software, which runs on a Dell PC using the Linux operating system, supports either the 720-line progressive or 1080-line interlace HD formats and can also output SD widescreen pictures.

WSI has already received a True View order from a major- market station, says Dow, who points out—as many clients asked at NAB—that the system includes guidelines for what information does and does not fall within a 4:3 picture.

“They were happy to hear, operationally, that they can go build a scene and know where the content will be in the 4:3 screen,” he says.

Baron's VIPIR (Volumetric Imaging and Processing of Integrated Radar) HD system runs on a high-end Dell PC using the Windows XP operating system. The Huntsville, Ala.-based company, which has about 200 broadcast customers for its graphics systems and 100 stations using its radar products, has already sold VIPIR HD to Capitol Broadcasting's WRAL Raleigh, N.C. Baron President/CEO Bob Baron thinks demand for HD will only increase.

Storm tracking is a huge part of stations' weather coverage, particularly in areas prone to tornados or severe thunderstorms. So the many graphics vendors showing new 3D graphics and high-resolution storm-mapping at NAB drew a crowd.

Tracking danger zones

Madison, Wis.-based Weather Central has about 300 broadcast customers for its graphics systems and also provides the graphics for NBC Weather Plus (and the Weather Plus companion Web site, through its sister company MyWeather). Its ESP:LIVE (Exclusive Storm Prediction) system, now installed at more than 50 stations, is designed to pick out the most threatening storms and give meteorologists a jump on standard National Weather Service (NWS) warnings.

The 3D X-Vision feature provides a three-dimensional animation of NEXRAD (Next Generation Radar Data) and allows a meteorologist to “slice” into a storm to show the exact location of damaging winds, hail, flooding or tornadoes. “You can slice into the storm as if you were doing a CAT scan on it,” says Director of Marketing Steve Smedberg.

Baron's latest storm-tracking innovation is Micro­Trac, an automated system that will pick out the three most dangerous storms in a station's coverage area and zoom right down to the neighborhood level. MicroTrac follows the center line of a storm as it passes over schools, churches, houses and hospitals, and the system displays an “ETA box” indicating when the storm will pass through a particular location. MicroTrac takes advantage of satellite imagery and improved aerial photography to give viewers an up-close look at a storm.

“It starts with government topographical maps, and then as you zoom in on the system, it switches over to satellite,” explains Baron. “You see the satellite down to 15 meters, so you make out things that are 45 feet tall. As you continue to zoom in, it switches over to aerial photography, which lets you see things 3 feet or less in size.”

AccuWeather has bolstered its storm-tracking capabilities with its acquisition this month of Weather­­-Data, one of whose key technologies is Select­Warn, an advanced radar product focused on tornadoes and other severe weather. SelectWarn includes “geo-hazard” capabilities and covers not only weather but other natural hazards, such as earthquake damage and flooding. For example, instead of just reporting how high a river will crest at flood stage, SelectWarn allows a station to actually show what areas will be affected by flooding in terms of local streets and landmarks, and it can forecast the spread of flood waters over time.

AccuWeather is also touting a new service aimed specifically at mobile devices, Third-Screen Network, which is based on standard Wireless Application Protocol technology. Third-Screen is designed to be a wireless portal network delivering weather and other information to mobile devices and is a product of exclusive partnerships with one media outlet in each Nielsen TV market. AccuWeather and its media partner will split advertising revenues, but there will be no subscription fee for consumers.

WSI is tackling the mobile space with TrueView Prism, a weather-content production system that generates and distributes content from the broadcast graphics system and pushes it out to multiple servers.

“With Prism, you can take one scene and render it out in three different formats,” says Dow. “The user only has to set it once, and it can build it three times.”

As Dow explains, a weather scene originally created in widescreen 720-progressive can be cropped to 4:3 standard-def or cut down to a much lower resolution and converted to Quicktime for distribution to a cellphone or personal digital assistant. Once templates are set up within the system, Prism will take incoming NWS data, render it in multiple graphics formats and transfer it to the appropriate distribution server.

But graphics need to be tweaked for content, not just size.

“The biggest challenge is trying to create content so you can actually see the information,” says Dow. “When you look at weather content, you have a lot of text information in a standard broadcast, but you have a lot more real estate to display the information. Since cellphones are smaller, you have to make things much bigger and make the geographic area much smaller. You might take the typical DMA-scale map and slice it into four different views and reduce the number of data points. Instead of 10 towns, you might reduce it to five.”

Keep it simple

The Weather Channel keeps it simple with its mobile-content offerings, says Ian Miller, senior VP of IT weather systems, often using icons or colors instead of numbers or text, particularly when showing a national view. “There's a readability challenge,” he says. “So you're thinning out the data so that it can be consumed on that size of screen.”

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