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Emboldened by the BBC's move from traditional flat weather maps to a so-called "virtual reality weather maps", tech boffins are scheming to replace flesh and blood presenters with animated images. Televirtual, a firm based in Norwich, the fictional home of naff presenter Alan Partridge, have developed CGI figures called METman and METgirl and are marketing the technology to stations who can't afford to pay 'real' broadcasters. The firm said it has has signed a deal with an unnamed niche station for the service.

Televirtual managing director Tim Child told the Eastern Daily Press that the technology had applications beyond weather forecasting but creating a virtual "Micheal Fish" had been chosen as an application because of its "relatively small knowledge base and its formulaic nature". We doubt the Met Office would agree with this assessment. Local forecasters quizzed by the Eastern Daily Press highlighted the value of real-life weather presenters.

Jim Dale, broadcaster and senior forecaster at the British Weather Services, told the paper that the public liked to be able to put a human face together with forecasts, if for no other reason than it gave viewers someone to blame if weather predictions turn out wrong. “Often there is a good story to tell behind the weather and it needs a good story teller,” he said.

Televirtual developed the technology in collaboration with British speech scientists and the BBC's weather graphic suppliers, Metra.

METman's entire performance is generated automatically from a few lines of text-based data issued as a meteorological summary, and accompanied by a weather map update. Text is then fed into a speech engine called METvoice which draws from a lexicon of appropriate phrases to formulate a weather forecast in narrative - rather than purely factual - form. Operating as part of Televirtual's RAP animation system, METvoice features an XML-style mark up language stream, triggering lip-synch animations, and "controlling and dictating the 3D animated METman' s moods, expressions, gestures, and screen positions". Child, a broadcaster and former TV newsman, was used as the template of the voice used by METman.

Televirtual also reckons the technology could also be applied to replace quiz show presenters with virtual presenters on virtual sets, slashing costs in the process. The firm reckons the biggest potential market of its technology might be in the home, through incorporation in set top boxes. So-called homecasters would be able to advise on TV viewing schedules, read the news and weather on demand, and trawl the internet on request. They might also be used to read incoming emails to the blind or sign to the deaf. ®

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