June 26, 2018

Jim Cantore took three quick steps backward as an electrical pole buckled and fell toward him on live TV last Wednesday.

“Jeez, that was close,” he said, sparks still flying as he explained how to handle downed power lines. “Frankly, if you’re standing where I am, you’re way too close.”

Minutes later, an EF-2 tornado missiled a wooden plank into a sheet of glass just feet from Cantore’s head. As the camera zoomed in on the shards of wood and glass, Cantore discussed the importance of staying indoors and clear of exterior walls during tornadoes.

The Weather Channel meteorologist and on-air personality has been on the scenes of some of the worst storms over the past several decades, storms with names like Katrina, Sandy and Irma that few will soon forget. But on June 20, he faced what may have been his most personal encounter yet — a swelling tornado that shredded the Weather Channel offices around him.

At least, that's what it looked like.

As the lights blinked and died and the tornado, now an EF-5, tore apart the set, Cantore donned a hard hat and took refuge in a safe room. He emerged to a field of debris and fire, a humbling demonstration of the power of severe weather.

“The takeaway is that there are ways to remain safe, to have a plan, and to see all that valuable information in a way that isn’t just four lines on a chart,” said Michael Potts, vice president of design at The Weather Channel.

Over the past few months, Potts and a team from The Weather Channel built the tornado — a remarkably lifelike real-time demonstration — with the help of a design contractor to help audiences better understand weather. Whether it’s dusty plains or snow-capped mountains, a balmy 75-degree day in San Diego or a severe tropical storm in Galveston, The Weather Channel can use new technology to blend immersive environments with its studios.

“We wanted to move beyond the amazing things we do already … and think of ways that we can really immerse our audience and engage them in a deeper and more meaningful way. In a way that’s more personal,” Potts said. “We thought that being able to re-create environments that are lifelike and hyperrealistic and dropping the bounds of the limits of perceived technology allows us to do that.”

The team focused on tornadoes because June 20 was the last day of spring “and tornadoes happen to be one of the most visual weather phenomena that people can relate to and recognize,” Potts said. And following the lifecycle of a tornado is a compelling way to use storytelling to talk science and safety.

But the team plans to expand to less severe weather in the future.

“Turn on the weather channel in 2020 and 80 percent of the time we might have a set that takes you to a street corner in Cincinnati, or downtown Boston, or Biscayne Boulevard in Miami,” he said. “You’re not just looking at what the seven-day weather forecast is, but you’re being immersed in it. You’re feeling it.”

To build these presentations, internally called “immersive mixed reality,” The Weather Channel turned to video game technology. It uses the “Unreal Engine,” which powers popular games like Fortnite and Ark: Survival Evolved. Rather than creating effects and rendering them in post-production, the process used to create visuals for most films, the Unreal Engine builds effects in real time.

This allows The Weather Channel to, for instance, launch a mangled red sedan at Cantore on live television.

Cantore’s involvement (he helped to write the script and shots), several days of practice and the this-is-live dramatization make it easy to get lost in the experience and forget that this all is computer generated.

“I don’t think people looked away. It was something that people immediately wanted to share,” Potts said. “That was the motivation — we wanted people to talk about safety.”

Potts sees broad applications for the technology in other newsrooms, to create environments where audiences can’t go, to show intangibles like endangered or extinct species or to create immersive infographics of hard-to-grasp topics.

“You can do these new things that used to be impossible. You can think beyond where you could think before,” he said.

The Weather Channel next plans to take its audiences to places they’ve all been before — their own front porches.

Last year, the channel launched three-dimensional simulations to show the effects of storm surge on coastlines or anywhere water was near. With this new immersive mixed reality technology, they can go one step further.

“We could take the picture of you on your front porch … and visualize what a storm surge realistically might mean for you,” Potts said. “That makes it personal.”

Learn more about journalism tools with Try This! — Tools for Journalism. Try This! is powered by Google News Lab. It is also supported by the American Press Institute and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation

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Ren LaForme is the Managing Editor of Poynter.org. He was previously Poynter's digital tools reporter, chronicling tools and technology for journalists, and a producer for…
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