While there’s a case to be made that it’s the future of how we interact with our tech, it’s hard not to feel like, right now, augmented reality isn’t much more than a neat parlor trick. Many of its demonstrations are cool and impressive, but not exactly practical. How often, for instance, are you going to need to use AR to visualize a home redesign? There is, however, at least one place where AR is used frequently, usefully, and, frankly, awesomely: the Weather Channel.
In September, as Hurricane Florence bore down on North Carolina, a clip of broadcaster Erika Navarro explaining the storm’s danger went viral. After a fairly standard presentation of storm surge projections, Navarro pivoted to something else. “But,” she said, “this is just what it looks like on the map. We can show you what this could look like if you were to find yourself in this scenario.” The camera pulls away to show Navarro standing on a grey disc on a virtual street corner, in front of a suburban home, next to a car. Water fills the entire virtual environment except for the gray disc. The water rises to three feet, enough to knock someone off their feet or cause cars to float. Navarro points at the car as she explains this, and the car becomes buoyant.
The water’s rise further, to 6 feet, over Navarro’s head, and then to 9 feet. Debris floats through the water and the howl of the wind picks up. “This is an extremely dangerous and life-threatening situation, so if you find yourself here, please get out,” she urges viewers.
The clip was a perfect example of an actually-useful implementation of augmented reality (The Weather Channel refers to this as “immersive mixed reality,” or IMR). Michael Potts, the VP of Design for the Weather Group, says that the company first started thinking about using this technology about five years ago. “We had quite a long run of success, for probably two years, where we did literally hundreds of different kinds of explainers, from the atmospheric sciences, to why ice is so thick in the Great Lakes, to how tornadoes form,” he said.
Immersive mixed reality is a step up from AR in which, instead of projecting small objects in front of presenters on-air, the entire space around the presenter can be transformed into a virtual environment. “For 30 years, weather presentation has been very consistent,” Potts said. Usually it’s a person in front of a map. “We wanted to engage the audience more and find a way to go deeper into the science of weather.”
The audience “can visualize. They can put themselves in that picture,” Potts said. “It’s almost this sense of empathy.” Take, for example, the problem of creating a sense of urgency and understanding around climate change. “Climate change for so long has navigated many threads of comprehension and understanding. It’s not an easy subject to dive into,” Potts said. “What we can do is paint the picture of what the impacts will be.” It takes climate change out of the hypothetical realm and into one that is “relatable and understandable.”
Last week, the Weather Group debuted a segment featuring anchor Jim Cantore explaining the dangers of an ice storm. In the segment, Cantore dodges enormous icicles falling from a cell tower and narrowly avoids a bus skidding out of control.
For a clip like the viral one featuring Navarro, creating that experience requires balancing lead time with accuracy. “To stand something like that up, it takes the right teams a good four weeks,” Potts said, from conception to narrative. Still, the final piece was based on data from the National Hurricane Center. “The water levels that we reflected were driven by the latest advisory for that event,” Potts recalled, marrying real-time data with effective visuals.
Even though the Weather Channel’s IMR pieces are a relatively new addition to the team, the challenges of training on-air talent to interact with something that’s not really there is not a huge issue. After all, modern weather presenters are used to acting against a green screen anyway. In a sense, the mixed reality sets are the same thing. “They come kind of built in, with this ability to act and convey information to you that looks like they can see it,” Potts said.
As for the future, Potts says that better GPUs (graphics processing units) and more processing power will allow the network to execute more elaborate ideas. One aspiration is towards volumetric scanning, getting virtual versions of presenters and placing them in a virtual environment they can fully interact with, doing things like walking through snow, instead of standing in a circle apart from the weather event.
Still, Potts said he doesn’t want to let the augmented reality stuff overshadow when the channel needs to convey information. In emergency situations, sometimes a simpler, less flashy approach is preferable. “When a tornado’s on the ground or a hurricane is approaching, I think we show a great sense of balance,” he said. “You can’t go all in on either direction.”