Future Tense

The Weather Channel Uses Video Game Simulation to Convey the Severity of the Hurricane Threat

Will this open the floodgates to actually useful news simulations?

A meteorologist stands in a simulation showing what a 9-foot storm surge from Hurricane Florence would look like on a neighborhood street. The water is higher than a street sign.
This is some splashy new technology.
The Weather Channel

As Hurricane Florence flood warnings continue to surge, the Weather Channel has found a way to make them hit home: with a visualization of what the storm surge could look like “in reality.” With experts still trying to convince residents to evacuate in spite of a category downgrade, the immersive mixed reality is an upgrade on the standard topographic inundation map—and a powerfully sobering use of technology.

The viral visualization shows a presenter standing on a simulated street, as simulated floodwaters rise higher around her, showing various possible depths—otherwise just numbers—in relation to her body. At 3 feet, it’s “coming up my shins, up towards my waist,” at 6 “this water’s over my head,” while at 9 feet, “this is an absolutely threatening scenario. This is through the first floor of your home and into the second.”

“If you’re told to go, you need to go,” she adds. The simulation has been used by other anchors through the Weather Channel’s broadcast, too.

It’s far less dramatic than the “reporter reporting through the elements” we’re used to, but—as much as we enjoy those videos of reporters struggling to maintain their composure—a far more impactful demonstration of hurricane flood waters, the second leading cause of hurricane deaths.

Genuinely useful innovation is not something we often see from TV news shows, who often use flashy technology to strange and pointless effect. In this case, augmented reality actually augments the reporting. As Earther senior reporter Brian Kahn noted on Twitter, “I feel like I understand storm surge academically, but this really drives it home what the forecast means and why coastal evacuations were mandatory.”

It’s not the first time the Weather Channel has tried to use this “immersive mixed reality technology” to convey the reality of a natural disaster. In June, it aired a video called “Tornado Hits The Weather Channel,” in which the studio appeared to be struck by a tornado mid-broadcast—blinking lights, shaking camera, debris, rubble, American flag, and all.

Both the June simulation and the Florence visualizations came out of the Weather Channel’s long-term deal with the Future Group, a partnership designed “to help ignite the next evolution of weather presentation through new, immersive mixed-reality technology.” The group specializes in custom-made, mixed-reality experiences, powered by Unreal Engine, which is used in games like Fortnite and Ark: Survival Evolved.

Following the June experiment, Venture Beat joked that “with ‘fake news’ on the rise and trust in journalism on the decline, this probably wasn’t the best time” for the weather updates channel to be messing around with an augmented reality tornado. In the latest demo, however, it’s clear that it’s a simulation (unless, of course, the presenter is a witch), and one with an obvious educative purpose: Showing people why they need to get out before it’s too late.

They also kept the dramatic touches fairly low key this time around, in keeping with the severity of the current threat—a few subtly placed fish swim by the reporters, but there are no sizzling power lines, sharks, or disintegrating American flags to be seen.