October 25, 2018

Floods and fires: how The Weather Channel uses Unreal Engine to keep you safe

By Andy Blondin

After grabbing headlines with the debut of its immersive mixed reality (MR) content, The Weather Channel (TWC) continues to break new ground with segments on storm surges and wildfires. By plugging behavioral weather data into Unreal Engine, TWC gives viewers an unprecedented true-to-life visual experience of these dangerous weather phenomena. 

In these mixed-reality segments, a presenter stands amid extreme weather situations and explains the changes in the environment as they happen. The result is a visceral sense of what it would be like to actually be there. 
“Immersive mixed reality allows us to take any weather story we want and put the on-camera meteorologist into those environments,” says Michael Potts, VP of Design at TWC.

Potts cites Unreal Engine as the lynchpin for these segments. “It allows us to create experiences that are hyperrealistic," he says. "Frankly, it’s going to change the way we present the weather.”

Remaking weather presentation

The immersive pieces on storm surge and wildfire are the latest in a series that began in June of this year with a mixed-reality experience that had viewers watching a tornado approach TWC’s headquarters. As meteorologist Jim Cantore described the changing dangers of the escalating tornado, a fizzing light pole fell at his feet, followed by a mangled car. Each of these visual events was accompanied by textual graphics to drive home important points about the tornado’s effects.

“We wanted to launch in a very memorable and bold way,” says Mike Chesterfield, Director of Weather Presentation at TWC. “We wanted to make a statement that we were transforming weather presentation.” The reaction was immediate, with TWC’s Twitter feed lighting up with viewer engagement, and thousands of views of the segment on YouTube within a matter of days. 
TWC creates such content with the idea that the more informed viewers are, the better they can prepare for, and respond to, any danger coming their way. “One of the main goals for us using this technology and storytelling in this way is to keep people safe,” says Chesterfield. “This way allows them to immediately put themselves in that situation.”

Next, the team at TWC turned their attention to showing the effects of storm surge, the flooding that results from storms. The team utilized data on the behavior of water and wind during such an event, and incorporated physics calculations to animate water, trees, and other objects in the scene. “I'm able to actually take mathematical formulas and inform a graphic,” says Potts. “That's what the Unreal Engine allows us to do.”
The next project was a stunning piece on wildfire, showing the speed at which a wildfire can spread and devastation that follows. While meteorologist Stephanie Abrams explained how wildfires start and spread, flames shot up around her and animals fled from the growing fire. Seeing it happen in real time illustrates the dangers in a way that a two-dimensional map never could. 
The segments are recorded live-to-tape a few hours before airtime. While the meteorologist in a large green-screen room, the physical camera’s position and rotation are synchronized with the viewing angle of the CG background and pop-up textual elements in Unreal Engine. With this workflow, each take is a finished segment with no post production required.

The future of weather reporting

The success of immersive mixed reality with Unreal Engine has TWC thinking into the future, where real forecast data will drive the environments. 

“I love working with this technology,” says Nick Weinmiller, Creative Director at The Weather Channel. “It's so awesome to see everything so realistic and to be able to inform people in this way.”

“We’re at the very beginning,” says Chesterfield. “Using this technology will fundamentally change and transform weather presentation at TWC. And our goal is by 2020 to use this technology in 80% of our broadcasts.”

Want to create your own mixed reality experiences to inform and inspire your viewing public? Download Unreal Engine today.