Discovery Earth Live gives 3-D view of weather patterns

Web app offers near-real-time cloud and rainfall coverage

The Discovery Channel has launched a cool Web application that gives users a three-dimensional view of planet Earth and lets them manipulate the globe with near-real-time views of the clouds, water vapor and rainfall.

Built with Adobe Flex technology, the Earth Live globe can be spun in circles with the click of a mouse, letting people change their vantage point of the planet even as Flash videos play on the three-dimensional canvas. Rich Internet application design firm EffectiveUI used some advanced caching techniques to pull off this trick. Discovery is officially announcing the Web site Monday but it can already be viewed here.

"We're rendering video wrapped around a three-dimensional object in real time on a client's machine. That's fairly processor-intensive," says Anthony Franco, president of EffectiveUI, which also helped build the eBay Desktop application.

"Being able to spin the globe without dropping half the frames on the video is hard to do," adds RJ Owen of EffectiveUI, who was the Earth Live lead developer.

The Discovery Channel draws on data from NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to provide global views of clouds, water vapor, temperature and rainfall updated every 24 hours. There are also historical videos, such as one showing the path of Hurricane Katrina and another that shows "a year in the life of planet Earth" by illustrating the changing weather patterns from the beginning of 2007 until the end.

"It gives you a sense of how the Earth is constantly changing," says Randy Rieland, senior vice president of interactive media for Discovery Communications.

In addition to educating Web surfers about climate change, Earth Live also aims "to make people understand how things around the planet are connected," he says. "The tendency is to focus on a particular event whether it's tracking a hurricane or tsunami. Often, when that's being done you lose sight of the ramifications of things in other parts of the world."

Users can interact with the Earth Live application in several different ways. They can add layers to the globe to illustrate the most recent weather patterns individually, or put them on the globe all at once to offer a more holistic view.

In addition to videos, users can click on icons on the globe to call up audio or text news articles related to weather, as well as information about what scientists are up to in the field. A widget tool lets users place an Earth Live globe on a blog or Facebook page.

Future content will include migration paths of birds and animals, and projections of what the world may look like if global warming goes unchecked.

"It takes rocket scientists to understand this data," Franco says. "These guys [at Discovery Channel] have amazing tools to decompile and understand this data. The challenge for us was to go from rocket scientist to soccer mom, make an application that consumerizes the data."

Earth Live viewers who are spurred to take action can visit Discovery sites TreeHugger or Planet Green.

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Jon Brodkin

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