Storm warning

The area of weather graphics has been dominated by the SGI platform because the system manufacturer has provided the necessary computing power to get high-resolution weather images on-air quickly.

AccuWeather is looking to change that. And for the time being, it is alone in the effort.

Next quarter, AccuWeather shoppers will be able to purchase a new PC-based weather-system platform on which the company has been working for two years, according to Dr. Joel Myers, AccuWeather founder and president.

The PC system, called Galileo, is priced at $39,999 and is based on dual 1-GHz Pentium III Xeon processors. It has a Nvidia Geforce 2 Ultra 64MB 4X AGP video card and a Matrox CG2000 NTSC video board for graphics capabilities. Options include SDI video output and a video switcher (the Videotek RS12A).

"SGI has been the system to use since 1995, but we see the future as PC," says Myers. "The PC has more capabilities and software, and it's open to all applications. So we made a strategic move and are ahead of the competition with a PC-based system."

The system will be beta-tested at WJAC Johnstown, Pa., beginning next month as well as at two other stations to be announced. Myers says the system will offer a feature called WeatherRide, which is a flythrough done in realtime. "It's extremely easy to use," he says, "People can sit down and do a weather map animation in five minutes."

Myers believes the PC platform offers greater flexibility than the SGI system because most newsrooms are PC-based. Using a PC in weather makes it easier to tie the systems together, add complementary software and make upgrades.

The approach taken by AccuWeather indicates a PC vs. SGI battle looming in the weather-systems market, but the move to PC is chiefly a reflection of systems manufacturers' looking to make products for all the platforms that can now handle the weather-graphics load. Despite the gains in PC power, says Jim Brihan, vice president of media marketing for system manufacturer WSI, it's important to remember that there's still a gap between the two.

"Right now, SGI is the best platform to be on," he says. "It's the most mature and it has the broadcast quality look that our viewers and customers require."

Victor Marsh, director of development for Weather Central, says SGI's platform still leads the industry in combining three critical items in one system: the computer itself, the graphics hardware to make creation fast, and the video hardware to ready the graphics for broadcast.

"Where SGI still leads is that it sells a turnkey system that has that all integrated," he explains. "When you go to the PC platform, you deal with using this motherboard for the next week, this graphics card for the next three months, and then a videocard from yet a third vendor. And getting it to work together is a challenge for any vendor."

WSI, Weather Central, Baron Services and DTN Weather (formerly Kavouras and soon to be renamed Meteorlogix) all strongly support the SGI platform. And one weather-system executive believes SGI's woes are behind it given its new CEO, and he believes the company will show a new focus.

"I would be less than honest if I said we didn't have some concerns about the SGI platform, and we're staying in continuous contact with them," says Bill Schlueter, DTN vice president, media industry. "We have a lot invested in software that is versatile so we fully expect to be very neutral on the issue of the platform."

Better graphics

Each of the weather-system manufacturers approaches the market differently, but each strives for the similar goal of cleaner graphics that make it easier for viewers to understand forecasts.

"Most of the projections of weather information tend to be map-based fronts and symbols and numbers," says Brihan. "That can tell a story, but it makes it hard for viewers at home to assimilate the data when they only have five or 10 seconds to do so."

A new product that WSI is offering to meet the need for clearer graphics is Skycast. About 300 TV stations in the U.S. use its Weather Producer system (it's also used by the Today
show and the Weather Channel), and Skycast is available for Weather Producer clients. It's designed for 48-hour forecasts and gives weather forecasters a chance to roll an animation that shows clouds rolling in, precipitation or any other weather pattern. The difference is that, instead of rolling over a satellite or map-based image, the weather animation takes place behind a skyline or other local landmark, giving the viewer a glimpse at what the sky is expected to look like were they standing outside (darkening clouds, rain, etc.). A second version of Skycast, called Weather Window, replaces the skyline with a graphic that offers a view outside a window for those news operations that don't want to use a landmark.

Weather Central's hottest new feature is its Walk On Weather configuration. Marsh says it combines the traditional weather-graphics presentation with the means to immerse the weathercaster into either a 2-D or 3-D weather map. One application of this feature is useful when the weather forecaster is at a remote location. That usually means that, when graphics start to roll, on-air talent is reduced to a voiceover role.

"Typically, you'll just hear a voiceover," says Marsh, "but this allows keying and compositing of weather maps so they float in front of the weathercaster while the location background is there."

One of the more pressing needs for any station is ensuring that information regarding dangerous storms can more accurately be presented to viewers. DTN Weather is offering stations what it calls DopplerCast, which works with the company's Storm Commander system that provides radar animations, warnings and crawls.

Schlueter says DopplerCast analyzes historic radar images and projects up to the next 30 minutes of activity related to a specific storm. Current Doppler technology provides solid information on current and past storm intensity but doesn't offer viewers a projection that will show how that intensity will change in the next 30 minutes based on past activity.

"If you add DopplerCast to Storm Commander," says Schlueter, "you can show a radar image five, 20, 30 minutes out as a color radar image where the rain cells will change color."

Baron Services is another player in the weather-graphics market, offering complete graphic systems for $50,000 and Doppler radar systems for $215,000 to $475,000, according to David Starnes, director of broadcast sales. Dealing with tighter budgets is never easy, and, with Doppler radar systems costing a premium, Starnes says, his company's clients want to share resources, such as Doppler radar data.

"The Internet allows us to move huge amounts of radar data around the country and make it accessible to dozens of users in a way that could never be technically feasible or cost-effective with older dial-up or satellite technologies," he says. "We call it Network America, and we have clients who can show data from 21 live Doppler radar [systems] simultaneously."

Marsh says that WeatherCentral's latest offering for severe weather needs is Sentinel storm tracking. The system allows the weathercaster to control radar images with a touch-screen. "They can zoom and have a better on-air presence," he says.

Making it easier for weathercasters to access information during dangerous storms is a feature beginning to turn up in product offerings as technology evolves. Baron Services has NexTrac Millennium, a system that allows a meteorologist to walk in front of the key, zoom to the most dangerous storms and track them automatically with a mouse click.

"The system actually knows which storms are the most severe, where they are going, and in what order to display them," says Starnes. "That feature updates constantly and renders on the fly, meaning the meteorologist doesn't have to do a thing other than be a meteorologist."

Better forecasts

Another factor that appears to loom large in the future of weather needs is the desirability of using digital bandwidth to create a localized 24-hour weather channel. AccuWeather is currently working with WFMZ Allentown, Pa., (BROADCASTING & CABLE May 28 and TVinsite offer a related story), and WSI is sending content via ISDN to Time Warner Cable's Bay News 9 in Tampa Bay, Fla., for a 24-hour cable weather station.

"It's unattended, it's hands-free, and it's a local service," says Myers. "Our research shows that, in 12 to 18 months, there will be these local stations in virtually every market. We just signed a deal with Benedek to roll it out in its markets, and we have several other major deals pending."

Brihan says WSI is also speaking with broadcasters and about a half dozen stations are interested.

"They're more willing to take the leap and program another channel," he says. "And we're expecting that to take off."

Weather Central is also working with a number of stations on a secondary weather channel, including WISH-TV Indianapolis and other LIN stations. Marsh says that stations that look to offer a second channel of weather information will typically sequence the weather information around other elements.

Complementing the potential for a dedicated weather TV channel is the expanded demands on Internet-related information. Schlueter says that DTN Weather has a system called the Triton RTI that can automatically repurpose weather graphics to a Web site with all of the animation and resolution seen on the broadcast.

"Right now, most Web sites have static graphics and thumbnail pictures," he notes. "But the Triton RTI presents the weather animation to the station's Web server in way that still shows the quality of the telemetry."

AWS is another company that sees the Internet as an important weather tool, not just for information but also for advertising. The company's WeatherBug product is free to its customers and offers local broadcasters a branded weather-information icon that sits on viewers' PCs. The icon offers live temperature information for the closest WeatherNet station as well as forecasts and radar information. It also provides an ad space, which that can allow for new revenue possibilities.