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Inside the Weather Channel’s quest to reinvent storm chasing

Six years ago, the channel’s graphics team began to experiment with rendering engines and AR. By 2020, the company wants 80% of its broadcasts to include these immersive virtual storms.

Inside the Weather Channel’s quest to reinvent storm chasing
[Image: The Weather Channel]

It was an otherwise ordinary day. Meteorologist Jim Cantore was giving the weather report inside the Weather Channel studios. That was before the tornado hit. Suddenly, an electrical line dropped mere inches from Cantore’s feet. A car fell from the sky above him. As the studio lost power and he fled to the stairwell, the tornado struck with force, ripping the walls and roof off the building. The only thing left standing was a solitary American flag waving in the wreckage. No one was hurt, of course, because the scene never actually happened. It was generated as part of the Weather Channel’s new Immersive Mixed Reality broadcasting project.

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[Image: The Weather Channel]

While it only lasted for seven minutes, the segment was actually six years in the making. The project—which won a 2019 Innovation by Design award for best North American design—is part of an ongoing effort by the Weather Channel’s design team to reinvent its presentation.

Despite everything in the world that has changed since the midcentury, weather broadcasts have been largely the same since 1954, when British weatherman George Cowling gave the first weather forecast in front of a map. Of course, graphics and technology have evolved immensely since then, and those advances have changed how we get the weather: The map became digital, animated, and filled with real-time Doppler radar readouts. But the Weather Channel hadn’t fundamentally bucked the information design of early broadcast trends until a few years ago.

[Image: The Weather Channel]

“Weather broadcast has been represented basically the same way for decades now,” concedes Mike Chesterfield, director of weather presentation at the Weather Channel. “It’s very rich in information, but short on actually trying to immerse the viewer in the weather forecast.”

The Weather Channel’s viewership has been on a mostly upward trajectory: 2017 was its most-watched year since 2013. Meanwhile, extreme weather and storms have been on the upswing. Along with VP of design Michael Potts, Chesterfield began considering what a more immersive Weather Channel would look like—a type of broadcasting that could convey to the viewer the danger of extreme weather from floods to tornados, and preferably, without endangering the Weather Channel crew. “There’s a reason we put our talent out there [during storms], because we want audiences to feel like they’re there and experiencing it with them, to understand the messages we’re trying to provide them,” says Chesterfield. What if instead of taking meteorologists to the weather, they thought, the weather could come to the meteorologists?

That was the fundamental idea behind the earliest experiments of the channel’s graphics and technical team. While they didn’t have the technical tools to produce full augmented reality yet, by 2015 they were hacking together a neat—if not quite realistic—3D tornado inside the studio.

“That was the first aha moment for all of us,” says Chesterfield. “We were able to put [meteorologist] Jim Cantore next to a tornado, and look how much it enhanced the story.”

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The plan worked, but the team wanted more realism to truly be able to duplicate that on-location feel. So two years ago, they jump-started the project by hiring The Future Group to build a more advanced augmented reality setup in the studio, complete with custom camera rigs and highly specialized back end. The platform they built runs graphics in the Unreal Engine, the graphics and physics simulator that powers some of the most popular video games in the world. Unlike the rendering technology behind, say, a Pixar film, which requires powerful computers to render images for months on end to create convincing frames, Unreal can run in real-time, rendering tornados and other acclimate weather right in front of your eyes—which is exactly why it’s used in budget animated TV shows already.

[Image: The Weather Channel]

With a technological pipeline in place, the team spent months developing the first tornado story, which premiered last year. “That morning we launched, it was very nerve-racking,” remembers Chesterfield. “A lot of people’s hard work was in play there. You think you know how everything is going to go, but you don’t know until you execute it.”

The broadcast went off without a hitch. Cars dropped from the sky. Walls ripped from the studio. “The immediate evidence we saw was via social channels,” says Chesterfield. “We were getting millions of views of the product. The comments associated with the views were all very positive and encouraging as far as our ultimate goal, to improve our messaging.” (In fact, these segments have been viewed over 37 million times on social media, and represented nearly a billion media impressions in the past year—which is considered a coup for the TV network.)

[Image: The Weather Channel]

While popular, the whole premise of a tornado tearing apart the studio was also a bit hokey, and perhaps overdramatic, compared to the devastation tornadoes cause in real life. “As a meteorologist, I’m a scientist by nature. I take that very seriously,” says Chesterfield. “It’s a balance we attempt to find. We want to make these experiences as impactful as possible, but at the same time, we don’t want to make people think we’re [going for] a reaction.”

In the 15 months since the Weather Channel debuted its immersive reality platform, it does seem like the team is finding that editorial balance. Highlights include this look at the California wildfires, along with Hurricane Florence’s storm surge—the latter of which involved flooding the studio with deep, virtual water.

“Up to this date, we’d put [the information] on a flat map and said you can expect 3 feet of storm surge, or 6 feet. But with surge effects, we were able to show what 3 feet and 6 feet look like [flooding] someone’s neighborhood,” says Chesterfield. “Immediately, we got a ton of response on social. People were sharing it with family members in the path of the storm. That was the first piece of evidence that we got people to react out ahead of a storm.” That’s the goal for the network: to prevent tragedies rather than report on them. For Dorian, the Weather Channel featured a segment that began 48 hours before the storm reached landfall, showing ways to prep your home for the winds and rain.

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As for the future of this technology, the next goal is simply to do a lot more of it—by 2020, the channel wants 80% of its broadcasts to include this style of imagery. “It will be a great mixture of the old school with the new school,” says Chesterfield of the 2020 broadcast. “They’ll work hand-in-hand in the future.”

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About the author

Mark Wilson is a senior writer at Fast Company who has written about design, technology, and culture for almost 15 years. His work has appeared at Gizmodo, Kotaku, PopMech, PopSci, Esquire, American Photo and Lucky Peach

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