Fernanda Viégas and Martin Wattenberg currently lead Google’s Big Picture visualization research group. And before that, they led IBM’s Visual Communication Lab. So what do they do in their off hours? Billiards? Fantasy sports leagues? Thursday night TV comedy marathons? Nah. They create jaw-dropping side projects like this animated wind map (humbly titled "wind map"). "We’re hoping to inspire, by revealing the beauty and power of the wind," the team tells Co.Design.
The project is a revelation. Have you ever seen a map like it? One that flows and cascades, capturing the intricacy of air currents across the U.S.? I most certainly haven’t. And as a Chicagoan who lives directly off Lake Michigan, I can almost feel the chilly breeze coming off the water—a natural phenomenon that I always felt but never entirely understood. Now I realize that much of that air started its journey near near Columbus—(note to self: check Columbus air quality ratings)—before traveling hundreds of miles over land and water to make a morning jog a bit chilly.
But what’s most remarkable about the wind map isn’t just its entrancing, perpetual animation. It’s that this visualization wasn’t created with any data that hasn’t been publicly available for years. The information, updated in hourly projections, comes straight from the National Weather Service’s Digital Forecast Database.
The experience is fundamentally new because "the dense particle trails give a more detailed view than a typical weather map, and the motion naturally reflects the dynamism of wind itself," the team writes. The map also does something very clever. Rather than alternating the animation’s speed to reflect the varying wind speed in different parts of the country, faster air is instead depicted by fuller, whiter particle trails. This design choice is practical: the paths of faster wind currents are no harder to trace than slow ones. And the end result is a visualization that’s info rich, but at the same time, borderline soothing to look at. In other words, it’s pretty much the exact opposite of your typical Weather Channel Xtreme CODE RED Weather Alert!!™.