Over the past few years, weather-graphics suppliers have spruced up their systems by using high-powered SGI 02 and Octane workstations to run their software. The greater processing power of the SGI computers enabled 3-D effects like fly-throughs, giving an added dimension to the flat weather displays of the past. The next SGI-powered weather-presentation technology to hit the map was virtual sets, which could place meteorologists in any 3-D weather environment. Although virtual sets created an initial buzz among meteorologists, the concept quickly died down.
But some stations have found a way to use weather as a major-marketing tool to help boost ratings of their newscasts. And even though most weather segments get as little as two minutes of airtime per newscast, stations have learned how to make the most of them.
To do that, manufacturers of weather-graphics systems are creating products that can help stations gain an edge in their market with exclusive forecasting services.
Local, local, local
Today the biggest trend in the weathercast can be summed up in one word-local. Manufacturers and broadcasters are focusing on providing highly localized information with clear, easy-to-understand graphics.
"We see the trend moving [toward] improving meteorological data, and we think the industry has moved beyond towns to city streets," says Baron Services Executive Vice President of Sales and Marketing Bob Baron Jr.
Jim Brihan, vice president, product marketing at Billerica, Mass.-based Weather Services International (WSI), adds, "Viewers are now not just looking at the sky, they are looking at the sky over their town."
But even the most localized forecast won't mean much to the viewer if it's too complex or the meteorologist can't get the graphics on-air in time. That's why manufacturers perform a constant balancing act between increasing ease of use and enhancing the graphic elements.
"It's a constant battle as a vendor of weather systems," says Bill Schlueter, vice president, broadcast sales for Kavouras in Burnsville, Minn. "Certainly automation and ease of use have made some things possible. But it's a never-ending effort to make the system as user-friendly as possible."
AccuWeather's President Dr. Joel Myers believes the key to a weather-graphics system is in the user interface. "The system has to be easy to use. It's got to be fast, and you've got to be able to adapt [quickly] to changing weather. It can't be too cumbersome, and it's got to look good on the air."
WSI, which prides itself on adding entertainment value to the weathercast, is now focusing on "experiential weather" says Brihan. The company's latest offering, SkyCast, gives broadcasters localized minute-by-minute forecasts that include animations designed to show viewers the weather the way they will most likely experience it.
The system can create an image of a recognizable landmark like a beach or a football field and use that as the background for the weather presentation. The weather animations roll over the background, showing the changing weather conditions throughout the day.
Storm tracking is another hot feature with viewers, says Brihan. Although radar companies have been providing stations with more pinpoint storm-tracking tools, the graphics have been inadequate.
WSI's answer is StormTracker, a tool that connects to WSI's WeatherProducer graphics system to give stations a consistent look throughout the weather segment. Using radar data from 157 National Weather Service sites across the country, as well as radar manufacturers like Enterprise Electronics, the system automatically tracks where storms will be in 15 to 20 minutes and can show which cities, towns and individual neighborhoods are in the storm's path.
In keeping with this year's push toward localization, State College, Pa.-based AccuWeather is traveling to RTNDA with Ultra Local Cast, a new product designed to offer more accurate weather forecasts down to the individual neighborhood.
"Ultra Local Cast allows a station to provide weather for every neighborhood in every point in their DMA," says AccuWeather's Myers. "It really has weather down to street-level detail, with 25 different parameters, and it's all done through automation."
AccuWeather, which offers its exclusive branding and forecast services to about 65 stations, is banking on Ultra Local Cast to be another way to differentiate itself in a competive weather-graphics market.
"This adds another dimension," Myers explain. "It's an unmatched data model with more detail than has ever been seen. The thing that drives it is the incredible detail and the weather mile by mile."
Kavouras is introducing several additions to its Triton RT (Real Time) 2-D and 3-D graphics system and its StormPro storm-analysis system. One new StormPro feature is DopplerCast, which provides real-time Doppler radar information. DopplerCast is based on "some very sophisticated algorithms" from Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Lincoln Lab, says Schlueter, and uses a national server to produce data.
Kavouras has also given StormPro the ability to predict tornadoes by identifying severe parts of a storm system that could spawn a tornado and displaying an arrow that points to the touch-down point, along with the predicted time of arrival.
Kavouras also is improving localized weather with MetroCast for Triton RT, which now uses the National Weather Service's NexRad radar data enhanced with local forecasts that originate from a national server at a Norman, Okla., storm laboratory.
Weather Central Inc.
At RTNDA, Weather Central will be focusing on its StormSentinel storm-tracking system, which allows meteorologists to zoom in to street level. "It combines the best of live radar with Nexrad radar," says Steve Meyers, marketing director at Madison, Wis.-based Weather Central.
"Storm tracking has become a critical component of a television station's weather arsenal," he says. "Providing real-time information about severe weather for viewers saves lives. The problem has been that the weathercaster cannot operate the system and be on-camera at the same time."
Weather Central's solution is MagicTrak, a patented technology that allows the meteorologist to be on-air and simultaneously control all the elements of the presentation with his or her hand.
Weather Central also will be showcasing its WalkOnWeather (WOW) system, which was introduced at NAB 2000. "This technology enables the weathercaster to be in the weather environment and in a 3-D weather map," says Meyers.
Huntsville, Ala.-based Baron Services is known in the weather world for its Doppler radar products and its FasTrac and NexTrac storm-tracking tools. Now Baron is taking its services a step further with its FasTrac and NexTrac Millennium Systems. With its new Cobra processing system, information is "five minutes faster than what all others rely on, and it identifies where a specific threat is," according to Baron.
Using this technology Baron Services is currently testing a new Web-based program, Saf-T-Net. Along with a Web site, Saf-T-Net notifies users of severe weather conditions via cell phone or pager. The services can also be branded for a local station.
But Baron also is focusing heavily on graphic presentations of radar data with its VIPIR (Volumetric Imaging and Processing for Integrated Radar) Doppler radar display product, which is designed to make complex radar data more relevant to viewers.
"VIPIR is about providing instant identifiable information to the viewer," says Baron. "[VIPIR] ... can show you exactly where the dangerous winds are in a way that's instantly understandable to the viewer."