GEARING UP FOR NAB: WEATHER GRAPHICS

Stations, Viewers Inspire Weather Offerings

Vendors of the competitive and fast changing weather graphics market will be out in force next month at the NAB Show. In many cases, the new products and features they will be promoting were developed in direct response to customer, and even audience, research.

Nowhere in broadcasting are the demands and benefits of the latest technology more evident than in a station’s weather reports. While all forecasts are assembled from similar data, creative combinations of presentation and workflow can make a critical difference in speed, accuracy and credibility with viewers.

Those key attributes will be promoted by the top vendors of weather graphics systems at the NAB Show next month as competition among them heats up.

  • AccuWeather will showcase more realistic 3D and virtual graphics and will introduce tools to make forecasts more “conversational.”
  • Baron Services will display closer integration of its graphics engine with its speedy data analysis. Baron can also leverage its close professional ties to federal, state and local weather agencies and emergency service providers.
  • Vizrt will display a range of new features to improve speed and resolution of mapping and radar data, and more flexible and powerful touchscreen and workflow solutions.
  • Weather Central has greatly enhanced the graphic detail and 3D visualization of its studio graphics, while adding hyperlocal and social media features to its storm tracking system. It will also introduce a turnkey toolkit for developing Web-based weather features as well as customized PC widgets and mobile applications.
  • WSI has beefed up the data handling for its core graphics engine, and will introduce new products that combine traffic and weather visuals, simplify playout to social media and monitor the operation of all weather-related systems.

In many cases, these new products and features were developed in direct response to customer and even audience research. “A new bar has been set for what is considered cutting-edge video,” says Ryan Ayres, AccuWeather’s VP of display systems and services. “The viewers’ visual expectations are as likely to be defined by what they see on the Web and on gaming devices as by what’s on TV.”

AccuWeather aims to make forecasts more “conversational” with Version 3.2 of its CinemaLive HD, which frees the presenter to roam the 3D virtual set and maintain eye contact, while controlling graphics with an iPad.

With the upgraded software, Ayres says, broadcasters “can display tomorrow’s weather on your own street corner,” using new CityVision 3D graphics engine that renders photo-quality recreations of familiar local landmarks under a variety of weather conditions. It can also incorporate approaching weather into Microsoft Bing maps. Video examples of these products in action can be found here.

AccuWeather will also debut StoryTeller, an interactive touchscreen system that gives on-air talent control over the full range of weather data, graphics, video sources and social media content that make up a modern forecast. StoryTeller lets users “construct an entire segment including tape pieces, live shots, cell phone video, really anything,” Ayres says. “And if the story changes while you’re on the air, StoryTeller can instantly replace, delete or rearrange program segments as needed.”

BRAND CONNECTIONS

The proprietary interface is operated on camera using a touch display screen, which AccuWeather offers in sizes ranging from a 32-inch anchor desk monitor to an 83-inch screen large enough for two presenters to use at once. Presenters can quickly swipe from one full-screen scene to the next, rearranging and highlighting graphic elements by hand. Not limited to weather segments, StoryTeller includes specialized applications for news, sports, traffic and election coverage.

Baron Services has added significant new features to Omni 3.1, the latest version of its graphics software including 3D building models, highlights and icons. It’s also added volumetric imaging that depicts real-time 3D radar data of complex storm systems — plus key frame controls to fine-tune weather animations.

“We don’t think of our tools as graphical engines,” says Ardell Hill, Baron’s president of broadcast operations. “Our tools are devised to enhance the story by constantly updating weather data in real time.” Indeed, Baron’s online gallery of local weather reports includes several examples of meteorologists noticing a sudden change in an oncoming storm while reporting live on the air.

At NAB, Baron will also introduce Weather Share, which automatically reformats and exports Omni 3.1 images to Facebook, Twitter and other social media. And it will debut Web Scheduler, which automatically translates and places animated weather graphics on a station’s online forecast page.

Like several other vendors, Baron has upgraded its popular VIPIR volumetric radar system to incorporate data from the latest dual-polarization radar, which transmits both a horizontal and vertical pulse to detect and depict approaching weather fronts in much greater detail. Baron can claim special expertise with “dual pol” technology. In partnership with L-3 STRATIS, Baron Services is upgrading all 171 NEXRAD radars used by the National Weather Service, the Federal Aviation Administration and the Department of Defense.

When completed in late 2013, these installations will benefit almost every broadcaster and municipality. “Whether it’s implemented in NEXRAD or a station’s own live radar, it’s no overstatement to say that dual-pol will change the way meteorologists receive and communicate weather data,” Hill says.

By contrast, Vizrt is leveraging its deep experience in cutting-edge graphics systems to enhance the performance of its Viz Weather system and its interaction with other devices in a station’s workflow. “We’re hosting a suite of new features in Viz Weather, including a new module for displaying weather alerts,” says Chris Black, Vizrt corporate communications editor. “There’s also a new option to interpolate and display point data smoothly over a map.”

Other additions to Viz Weather include the ability to share weather points data from the Viz Weather Data Server with other Vizrt or third-party graphics applications, automatic “fast extraction” and depiction of weather zones based on geographic borders or regions, unlimited resolution and scaling of imagery to match satellite or radar maps, and automatic formatting and playout of weather graphics to the Web or mobile devices.

Vizrt will also be showcasing “significant improvements to the Viz Weather interface, including how it parses data,” says Tom Shelburne, Vizrt’s director of special projects. “We’ll also demonstrate better integration with multi-touch screens including the ability to control Viz Weather with our Viz Anchor iPad app.”

Viz Weather will also now fully integrate with the 2012 enhancements to the Viz Media Engine, which connects a station’s weather segment to all forms of content creation and display in the newscast workflow, including live video input, multiple channel delivery, DVE effects, vision mixer, internal chroma keying and real-time compositing of videos and graphics.

Weather Central is highlighting its new Interactive Toolkit which allows users to create their own Web and mobile applications that deliver HTML5-compatible weather data and graphics on air, online and on mobile. “It’s a turnkey solution for creating customized apps and widgets,” says Bill Boss, Weather Central’s VP of media product development. “We did all the software heavy lifting so stations only have to match their on-air look and feel.”

But the bigger news is Weather Central’s additions to ESP:LIVE, the industry’s top-selling storm tracking system, which now incorporates dual-pol radar data. New features at NAB include “X-Vision Data,” which “vertically slices a storm structure and animates the details in 3D over time,” Boss says.

Recent tornados in Branson, Mo., proved the need for this data, according to Boss. “Even though it happened in the darkness of night, the tornado debris cloud was clearly visible on our radar image, providing confirmation of touchdown on the ground.”

Weather Central has also updated its Fusion Studio presentation system with such graphics enhancements as 3D texture mapping to any object or surface and greater control over lighting and shadow effects as well as customized animations and transitions. It has also improved the performance of its MagicTRAK interactive controls, which allow meteorologists to merely use hand gestures to control all aspects of their visual presentation, whether the graphics appear as part of a 3D virtual set, or on a nearby screen.

WSI, a Weather Channel company, prides itself on its in-house product design team. “We don’t outsource our development,” says Bill Dow, VP-general manager of WSI’s media division, “We have the largest development staff in the industry, with over 40 engineers creating proprietary software for WSI’s on-air graphics systems and mobile applications.”

WSI’s core product is the Max “ecosystem” of weather media and graphics applications, which includes such subsidiary products as the TruVu Max graphics creation tools and the Max Storm data, radar and satellite tracking and graphics system. WSI will release Max version 3.0 at NAB, which includes dual-pol radar and instant precipitation and hail detection.

According to Dow, WSI’s user interface and controls reflect “a user-centric approach. We were the first to hire human interaction designers to oversee product design.” Dow says the graphics templates and other media are based on “years of research into what viewers want in a weathercast — what they find compelling and entertaining.”

WSI’s three newest products will also be making their NAB debut. Max Traffic visualizes live traffic data while depicting any effects weather might be having. Traffic patterns can be displayed separately or combined with weather into one 3D graphic. By combining weather and traffic reports, WSI contends that Max Traffic saves stations time and money.

Max Social is a two-way application that automatically reformats and sends weather forecasts to Facebook and Twitter. The system can also receive viewers’ own weather-related messages, photos and videos and reformat them for selective display on the air. “Since Max Social is integrated with Max Storm, the station can also send life saving posts during the most critical times,” Dow says.

WSI will also demonstrate Hawkeye, an automatic monitoring system that immediately notifies WSI service technicians when there’s a problem with WSI hardware or software. Hawkeye monitors 50 “system health indicators,” including disk space, backup status, and ambient temperature and classifies each by severity.

Asked to forecast the most likely future innovations in weather technology, these top vendors offered some highly-educated guesses. There was unanimous agreement that stations are unlikely to increase headcount in the next five to 10 years, despite growing demands for more content. This means “customer service and technology will go hand-in-hand as the industry demands increasing support, including backup service,” says Baron’s Arden Hill. “We’ve already built redundancy into all processes, including our weather operations center, which is built to withstand an EF-5 tornado.”

Vizrt’s Chris Black predicts that the near future will also “include 3D stereoscopic graphics. Our scene authoring platform is already a true 3D environment so that the graphics will already be in 3D space.”

“In the push to deliver multi-screen content, some have lost sight of the fact that media companies need to monetize these services in order to succeed,” says Weather Central’s Bill Boss. “Broadcasters will increasingly find themselves competing with media outlets who don’t have the same broadcast heritage but are ready for the 24/7 news cycle. We need to further refine systems and workflows that deliver personalized content to viewers and create the traction with audiences that will generate future revenue.”

To read other 2012 NAB Show stories, click here.


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