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Forecasts of the Future

Revolutionary Virtual Reality System Gives 3D Vantage of Satellite Data

By Chris Carroll

Man wears weather VT headset

Photo courtesy of the Maryland Blended Reality Center

A tester in the Maryland Blended Reality Center views a weather system in virtual reality. The new system developed by UMD meteorologists and computer visualization experts allows a highly intuitive view of atmospheric data.

Glancing out the window tells you less about the weather than stepping outside. The same principle might also apply to meteorologists who rely only on computer screens to understand vast quantities of atmospheric data about developing weather patterns, including dangerous storms.

Now, UMD researchers are developing a groundbreaking system that lets forecasters don a virtual reality headset and “fly through” the atmosphere. It lets them zoom up next to temperature gradients, keep pace with differing wind speeds and soak up information on the atmospheric moisture content at different altitudes in a way that’s supremely intuitive—not to mention cool to look at.

“The current status is you chop up data into two-dimensional layers,” said Mason Quick, a meteorologist in the Cooperative Institute for Satellite Earth System Studies (CISESS). “But these are in fact three-dimensional datasets, so we’re now viewing them in their native form.”

The meteorologists worked with computer visualization experts in the Maryland Blended Reality Center (MBRC), led by Professor Amitabh Varshney, dean of the College of Computer, Mathematical, and Natural Sciences; together they designed a prototype system that incorporates some of the more than 100 available satellite atmospheric data sources. 

For its first test, they fed it about a dozen datasets that documented a dramatic weather event in the Pacific Ocean—an atmospheric river of extremely moist air flowing in a narrow, directional stream—that one year ago drenched the U.S. Pacific coast, prompting deadly floods and mudslides in California and record snowfall in Washington state. 

Researchers in CISESS and the MRBC, a program of the MPowering the State Initiative with the University of Maryland, Baltimore, are working to fine-tune the system, improve the user interface and potentially work in more satellite data sets. But it already provides a far more visceral experience than viewing a map-like weather data presentation on a screen, and it’s easy to envision a whole new way of tuning into the nightly weather forecast as VR technology continues to make inroads into the mainstream.

The wow factor is not necessarily going to sell professionals at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration—CISESS’s target user group for the technology—but the system could supplement current, highly refined methods of analyzing weather, says CISESS meteorologist Patrick Meyers. It could be a source of new insights, because quite literally, he said, “It’s providing a whole new dimension.”



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