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Augmented Reality Takes Weather Channel Talent—and Viewers—Inside a Tornado

June 2, 2015 | By Michelle Manafy, Editorial Director – DCN @michellemanafy

It can be more than a little tempting to play with every new “toy” that comes along in the digital media toolbox. But for organizations with successful diversified businesses built on data and accuracy, these experiments need to be carefully considered and intelligently implemented. So when David Clark joined the Weather Company as President of Weather Channel TV two years ago, he took a serious look around and decided it was time to revamp the studios and invest in improving the presentation-layer of the company’s content.

Jeremy Jones, the Company’s director of television products, says that as part of Clark’s mandate the team explored a variety of graphics they could incorporate into weather coverage and also set out to fundamentally re-imagine the weather map. “We’ve relied on the green screen for years now and we wanted to get our people out of the map and move away from boxes in boxes.”

Jones says they took a good look at the technological offerings on the market and saw that augmented Reality (AR) offered a way to “create immersive graphics that brought the weather inside our beautiful new studios…and put people inside the weather.” And while this implementation of AR is first and foremost about immersive storytelling, Jones says that the company also wanted to use technology that its audiences were interested in and to “bring them the kind of experiences that keep them glued to a two hour movie.”

Social media reactions to the Tornado Week debut of the new AR broadcasting technology demonstrated that the audience was not only impressed but intrigued, with many taking guesses at how the in-studio tornado had been generated. It was clear that, as Jones had hoped, the audience of self-proclaimed weather geeks was also interested in the technology behind the visualization.

While Augmented Reality (AR) has been used in sports broadcasting for several years, it has not seen widespread use in television and certainly not for the graphical representations deployed by The Weather Channel. The presentation they are offering rivals that of the best gaming systems or cinematic applications—going beyond informational overlays to truly lifelike 3D representations that are literally at the hands of any given on-air personality.

Jones says that The Weather Channel team—the talent behind the scenes and on-camera—were enthusiastic about using augmented reality, putting extensive time and energy into the development of the presentation as well as to rehearsing its on-air usage. And it was no small feat to incorporate AR into broadcasts: It was a six month undertaking that involved outside experts working with Weather Channel engineers and directors “who had never worked with AR before, but were incredibly excited to have the chance.”

The company opted to start out with explainer videos on seasonal weather trends, starting with Anatomy of a Tornado; Anatomy of a Hurricane will air as hurricane season starts. Then, the goal for the next wave of AR-enhanced content is for it to be centered on real-time weather events and, eventually, how AR can be used to enhance weather-fans’ experience across devices. “The ideas on our white board for how we can use this technology are pretty interesting,” says Jones. But he emphasizes that the company’s entire reputation is built upon data, science and getting things right, which must carry through in this initiative.

As for the debut, Jones points to the conversation between meteorologist Jim Cantore and weather anchor Sam Champion that viewers saw on the live broadcast as an indicator of how excited the team is about adding Augmented Reality to its storytelling palette:

The studio erupts in spontaneous applause from those on and off camera and Cantore reacts to it by saying that being able to show an F5 tornado in this way, inside the Weather Channel Lab, has been one of the most amazing things he’s done in his career. To which Champion replies: “I have never been more proud to be part of The Weather Channel team.”

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