One year ago today, The Weather Channel debuted its first immersive mixed reality (IMR) experience. The 8-minute TV broadcast aimed to transport viewers to the scene of a typical tornado, using the power of real-time graphic renderings and visual effects.
To date, the network has produced 10 IMR experiences on topics ranging from wildfires to ice storms. Its 11th, about the Apollo 11 mission, will debut in July. After an overwhelmingly positive response from its broadcast and social media audiences, the network plans to use IMR technology in 80 percent of their programming by mid-2020.
Immersive Shooter spoke with The Weather Channel’s VP of Design Michael Potts about the making of its mixed reality broadcasts and the lessons the team has learned this past year.
What made you decide that mixed reality was a good fit for the network?
Our goal here was to transform the way we do weather presentation. For so many decades, weather has been presented on TV in a familiar and expected way. We wanted to differentiate ourselves and we wanted to put out a more impactful message.
Everything we do has a science-and-safety message, and we wanted to show our audience rather than tell them. Mixed reality helps us create hyper realistic experiences that our audience can relate to.
When (and how) did this IMR journey begin?
We started experimenting in the extra-reality space in 2015. By 2017, the technology had caught up with our desires, and we were able to find a tech partner to help us bring IMR to life last year in full force.
Epic Games’ Unreal Engine was the only tool that unlocked real-time 3D rendering (versus weeks of rendering) for television broadcasting. Our team is full of great meteorologists, great storytellers, great designers, but we needed expertise on what Unreal allows people to do and harness that knowledge into executable experiences on TV.
We didn’t know exactly how to do it when we started, so we partnered with The Future Group out of Norway for our first few experiences. That allowed us to get some amazing things on air quickly and educate our teams to takeIndividual instance of a shot; a take = each time the camera is started and stopped. it over.
What was the learning curve like for your IMR team?
It takes a diverse group across many divisions to pull this off, and who we enlist for each experience depends on the scope of that experience. There are about 30-40 team members who make the entire IMR ecosystem possible.
We have a 15-deep design team who trained on Unreal Engine just like they would on any software that comes along.
What is the process behind creating one of these IMR experiences?
Every piece of content has to start with a good story.
Every year, we can count on four seasons. Every year, weather producers have a history of covering similar topics in each season. Every year, the network asks how we can tell those stories in a way that hasn’t been done before. After identifying our science and safety takeaways, we can start visualizing what it might look like on TV.
One of our executive weather producers–and an amazing script writer–Dr. Matt Sitkowski , will put those ideas into a narrative and write the dialogue. A storyboard artist will then put pictures to the narrative that the script is unveiling. As the narrative is refined, we’re thinking of the best fit for the experience from our library of talent (who’s a fan of this technology, who has expertise in this subject, etc.) and we’ll start bouncing the script off them.
That’s when our VFX artists get involved and start breaking down the script in all the elements and assets needed for the entire experience. We start dividing tasks, making timelines, and shot blocking. Our graphic designers will create callout information for the experience. Then, we put everything together in Unreal and start seeing how it plays out in our studio environment through gradually more in-depth rehearsals until it’s ready to run live.
What is it like for the talent to work in this type of environment?
How the talent brings this experience to life is key. Their own unique takeIndividual instance of a shot; a take = each time the camera is started and stopped. is what connects with the audience. When there’s a falling car or power pole, they need to have the right reaction. It takes a bit of rehearsal to get it just right in this medium. For a lot of TV meteorologists, there’s a certain level of familiarity working with green screens and referencing things that may not literally be there. So, they have a bit of a head start.
We also have reference monitors throughout the environment and we use green-on-green graphics so they can have good eye contact with an area. At the end of the day, being meteorologists, the talent is naturally more comfortable working in this kind of environment. And, we just have great talent to begin with.
Were there any unique ethical questions that arose, using this new technology?
Everything we do has to be on-brand for us. It has to fit our mission and values. We have to tell accurate weather stories in a scientific and safe way that resonates with our audience. We do have to takeIndividual instance of a shot; a take = each time the camera is started and stopped. into consideration our talent’s perceived safety in the IMR environments, but at its core, the ethical considerations for this technology are no different than any other technology.
Do you have any specific words of wisdom for other broadcasters who may be hoping to bring this technology into their newsrooms?
Really get to know your tech. Find good partners. Make sure everyone on the team–from designers and producers to studio operations–are comfortable with the technology.
There has to be a large sense of buy-in that we want to tell stories in this way as an organization. To do wholesale storytelling with mixed reality takes a village. The whole organization has to stand behind it.
What feedback have you received from your audience about these experiences?
The feedback we’ve gotten so far has been amazing. The content we’re producing resonates across all of our platforms, on traditional broadcast platforms and on social media. It’s gotten peoples’ attention across age demographics.
It’s really lit on fire on social. We’ve broken the barrier to communicating these types of stories with this approach. It allows the audience to picture themselves in these environments, it moves them to action, they want to share it and make it go viral.
We’ve also gotten national late night news media attention. Our industry peers around the world have recognized that we’re doing something very different, impactful and amazing. We won 10 10 Promax Awards in June (3 Gold, 4 Silver, and 3 Bronze) across a range of creative and design categories for our use of IMR. And this is the first time in more than 50 years of Promax history that a single brand swept a category, Informational Graphics, in both the NorthThe point of origin where a viewer enters a 360° scene, also serves as a frame of reference for orienting discussions a... More American Awards and the Global Excellence Awards, winning every gold, silver and bronze.
The key takeaway is a message of safety that can impact you and your family, presented in a way never seen before that enables you to understand it differently.
All of the IMR content you’ve done so far is meant to be watched on a flat screen (TV, phone, tablet, computer, etc.). Do you have any plans to make this content available in virtual or augmented reality environments?
I think that’s the next horizon for us. We think VR could be more transportive for our audience in a deeper and more immersive way. It’s definitely on our road map, but for now, we’re trying to fully explore how we can use this technology for 2D and flat screen mediums and seeing what best resonates with our audience and ties into our branded mission.
What’s the next step?
The Apollo 11 experience will be a great one for our audience and will reflect on that event in the only we can. We’re going to keep creating IMR experiences like the 10 we have already released, but we’re also gearing up to incorporate this technology and storytelling strategy into 80 percent of our broadcasts. We’re staying really busy; all fires will be fully lit.
Go behind the scenes on The Weather Channel’s IMR experiences with NowThis here.