Satisfying the Weather Junkie

Viewers demand a healthy mix of specific local forecast, national information
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For TV-station weather departments and the Weather Channel, the weather junkie, who will watch the commercials while waiting for the extended forecast, is a must-have viewer. But the race to please that junkie has led to a perplexing profusion of weather reports filled with colliding fronts, cloud fly-throughs, and Doppler radar and its potpourri of color.

"Many viewers get confused about what they're seeing on the screen," says Mark Gildersleeves, CEO of weather-graphics manufacturer WSI. "They don't really understand exactly what the forecast will be specifically for their neighborhood."

The confusion may spring from a plethora of information, of both comprehensive national weather and specific local data. The solution may lie in using on-air TV for national and regional weather and the Internet to meet viewers' specific local demands.

"I think stations are missing the boat if they don't take advantage of both the Internet and on-air broadcast," says Victor Marsh, director of development and vice president of My Weather, a Weather Central subsidiary.

Even on the television side, though, localization is important. Baron Services got its start localizing real-time weather information, specifically radar and lightning, down to a neighborhood level, says Director of Sales David Starnes. And he has seen a recent shift to local information.

"Weather departments started out providing comprehensive forecasts and supplying localized information as a sideline," he says. "It seems like now the former is becoming the sideline and the real focus is on everything local."

With the pressure to provide accurate and specific information comes the meteorologist's need to simultaneously make updates and on-the-fly changes to a forecast. Rendering graphics, though, can often take time, a luxury not afforded in a newsroom.

To solve that problem, Meteorlogix offers a QuickEdit feature to speed the rendering of multiple layers of graphics. Vice President, Product Marketing, Ron Sznaider points out that most weather systems require the meteorologist to edit in each layer and wait while each change is rendered. "With QuickEdit, the edit is made in one location at one time so updates are made to all the layers at once, saving time and improving the ability to provide up-to-the minute weather information. This can save a meteorologist one whole day of work in a week's span."

WSI's Vortex also is designed to meet the need for fast change, allowing the on-air meteorologist to bring up more-accurate and timely chroma-keyed graphics.

"It's an information stream that composites observed and forecasted data for the entire DMA so the forecast can be presented in real-time while in key," says Gildersleeves. "The meteorologists can interactively present the data on-screen."

Another need is improved forecasting techniques. Television stations have typically focused on the lowest level of radar information, or about 1,000 feet, and received updates every five minutes. But, Starnes says, a recent project by Oklahoma University makes the full bandwidth of radar available. "It's the first access to what we call Live Nexrad, and you can see it move through a three-dimensional volume analysis of the atmosphere. If you can look at multiple levels of a storm rapidly, you know more than if you looked at the same level over and over."

Baron Services' Viper 3-D display is designed to let the meteorologist look at storm developments at 10,000 feet as well as 1,000 feet. "You can turn the storm on its side and see how the complete engine of the storm is operating," Starnes says. "The old 2-D systems, which we do still sell, only allow for a top-down perspective."

Baron Services, he adds, has live radar systems that update a volume scan every minute. "When you combine Viper with one of our live radars, you can see the storm live once every minute." The ability to see the upper levels gives forecasters a jump on developing weather, such as hail or severe storms.

Turning radar and other data into attractive graphics has been another goal for stations. The Meteorlogix WeatherSpan RT system converts actual and forecast data into 3-D cloud visualizations. "It give stunningly realistic 3-D depictions not only of clouds," Sznaider says, "but also of other important weather features, such as the jet stream."

WSI's new ShowFX EXP, like its TrueView, is PC-based. As such, it reflects a trend in weather graphics: attempting to remove the need for preproduced weather elements. This extends beyond clouds and rain 3-D graphics and can be used, with the TrueView Traffic feature, for traffic reporting. ShowFX EXP costs around $20,000.

The biggest change in weather graphics continues to be the gains by the PC. Historically, weather graphics have required the complex computing power of SGI workstations. "Until recently," says My Weather's Marsh, "the performance of the PC hardware and the ability to integrate with broadcast-quality SDI video I/O just wasn't there."

Says Baron's Starnes, "We've always been PC-based. We've felt the SGI platform was overkill. But I'm sure there are things the SGI platform can do better than PCs, like having a more reliable operating system."

Meteorlogix continues to use SGI technology, Sznaider says, but new PC technology can provide similar and sometimes superior performance.

AccuWeather's first PC-based product was the Galileo Weather Rider Fly Thru system, which began shipping in May. The company has 42 orders or pending orders, including systems for KNBC-TV Los Angeles and WJAC-TV Johnstown, Pa.

AccuWeather founder and President Dr. Joel N. Myers says PC performance enable display of full, 3-D volumetric clouds instead of geometric polygons. It can render a FlyThru flight path in 35 seconds, compared with up to a half-hour on other systems.

"Common weather-show animations and graphic elements are rendered in matters of seconds and with far more ease and versatility on a PC," he says, adding, "One example would be a state radar element, panning and zooming on specific areas. Building it is a one-step process with Galileo, taking 30 seconds to render. Older, Unix-based systems would have taken multiple steps and up to five minutes."

The PC platform, he adds, also allows remote access to Galileo via the Internet.

Sznaider says PCs are more beneficial because users are able to get both speed and performance. "The intense nature of the PC marketplace is driving more and more technology improvements, and there's also the advantage of immediate access to off-the-shelf hardware and software."

SGI workstations are still important. Weather Central's SuperGenesis: Live system uses SGI's Fuel workstation, which has a MIPS R14000A processor, and the VPro 3D graphics system for IRIX. It also has a Dell Precision 530 PC front-end, though.

"When it came to highest-quality rendering, SGI still produces a product that has a superior look and feel," says Marsh. "PCs have come along, but, like anything, graphics can either look really good or be done really fast."

The difference between Genesis and SuperGenesis is the SGI workstation. The former uses the SGI O2 workstation; the latter, the Fuel workstation. "The price-for-performance ratio it is quite impressive on Fuel," says Marsh. "It has up to tenfold rendering performance from earlier platforms." Cost is $70,000-$150,000 for the SuperGenesis, depending on number of Fuel workstations and system configuration.

Ben Zimmerman, Genesis product manager, says that, combined, the two systems provide the performance of Fuel with the real-time capabilities of the PC. "There are a lot of real-time applications we can take advantage of with PCs, including video pass-through, data displaying, interactions, those sorts of things. The presenter and visual can become one seamless show."