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Last Updated: Monday, 23 August, 2004, 08:16 GMT 09:16 UK
Weather gets 3D gaming makeover
By Jo Twist
BBC News Online Science and technology staff

The Weatherscape XT software is used on several TV stations
How the 3D system looks in New Zealand
Video gaming graphics technology is set to transform how BBC weather is done.

A version of 3D software Weatherscape XT has been developed by New Zealand firm Metra and the BBC to give viewers a realistic-looking forecast.

Combining high-end gaming graphics and processing power means visuals are generated instantly, in real-time.

The virtual reality technology takes constantly-updated data and translates it into 3D images. The new forecasts will be on air from early next year.

"It thinks and works a bit like a computer game," said Colin Tregear, project director at the BBC's Weather Centre.

"We are trying to take weather data and generate weather graphics on a 3D map that actually looks like the weather."

The weather game

Currently, he said, the technology and weather maps that presenters use for bulletins, which has been in place for six years, are rather akin to Super Nintendo gaming from 1991.

P4, 2.6GHz/800MHz
80GB IDE (7,200rpm) hard drive
NVidia FX6800 Ultra 256MB graphics card
"When Super Nintendo gaming came out, people thought it was really clever.

"If you were to make a game like that now, people would ask why when we have the technology of Xboxes and PlayStations."

The new 3D package will be completely different. It will be a big change and a far cry from the days of magnetic clouds stuck on a wall map.

The decision to change how the weather is done came following two considerations.

The present system relies on a huge amount of computer equipment which was coming to the end of its life and desperately needed replacing.

Editorially, the weather team thought it was time to move into the 21st Century, because video graphics technology had become better, more widespread and accessible.

BBC weather forecast
It is a far cry form the magnetic days of old
People's expectations of computer-generated graphics on TV, in films, as well as in video gaming, are much higher now, explained Mr Tregear.

The system under development makes the topography of the ground looks more accurate, and feels like a 3D flying game.

Presenters can control the camera angle so they are able to zoom in on particular areas of the country for a closer look.

Rain is generated in 3D so that it actually looks like real rain, and as clouds sweep over the country, shadows are cast on the ground.

Flat is out

At the moment, weather presenters create their bulletins from Met Office data, which is updated regularly.

They work out how the data should look on a 2D map.

"The way they build shows is done largely around a series of flat maps and over the top, manually, they select and place the weather icon," said Mr Tregear.

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2 GB Dual Channel DDR 266Mhz ECC SDRAM
2 SCSI 73GB (15,000rpm) hard drives
Ultra 320/M SCSI Controller Card
NVidia FX6800 Ultra 256MB graphics card
The process takes about three to four hours for a one minute 30 second broadcast.

Although the sun, cloud and rain icons are comfortingly familiar, and have been used for years, they do not give a really accurate picture of weather conditions.

"You will see them on a map for eight hours covering 200 miles. It is pretty imprecise.

"We hope that by showing the weather that will actually go over your head, you will know whether it is going to be sunny or cloudy where you are," he said.

The weather icons will not be relegated to the history books though; they will be built into the system too.

The software builds weather shows in a series of scenes. It could take, for instance, the last 12 hours of satellite images from the Met Office's servers, and animate them automatically, in real-time.

The presenter then just needs to call up the animation for their particular broadcast, containing whatever data they wish to display.

Real-time rendering means data is translated into 3D models, hourly satellite images of cloud cover for instance, immediately.

Each forecaster will have their own high end PC with graphics card running the 3D software and every studio or office across the country will have a weather graphics server.

BBC weather forecast
The current graphics system has been in place for six years
This will consist of a top end PC with graphics card and video card, which will also run the software, which will generate weather graphics in a format suitable for broadcast.

Two separate servers will generate graphics and images for the web and interactive TV.

Two database servers will contain all the weather data, which sends out constantly updated weather data to the other machines.

"We are trying to give more time for forecasting and presenting instead of spending hours building weather graphics," Mr Tregear said.

With news and weather appearing on many more platforms - on interactive TV, the web, as well as portable devices - BBC Weather hopes the system will be more flexible and, potentially, give viewers the chance to build their own forecasts in the future.

Versions of the system are already used by Australia's Nine Network, CNBC stations in Europe, Asia, Dubai and Turkey, as well as TV stations in Lebanon and Saudi Arabia.

Game graphics hit their limits
30 Aug 03  |  Technology
Virtual 3D map published
09 Sep 03  |  UK


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