Mobile weather applications may be becoming the new playground for user interface designers, but few can also make claims as to advancing the technology behind the display of the weather on users’ smartphones, as well. But that’s the case with Minutely, a newly launched mobile weather application for iPhone and Android which not only offers the usual assortment of weather info, like temperatures, forecasts, and precipitation details, but also a 3D view into the weather itself in an application built on top of Unity.
Yes, Unity – the cross-platform video game development engine, which is rarely (if ever) used to build non-game mobile applications for smartphones. In fact, when Minutely’s co-founder and CEO Justin Re told Unity CEO David Helgason about his plans, he was told that such an idea was just “crazy.” But with the debut of Minutely’s mobile application, that crazy idea seems to have paid off.
Minutely is the new app and rebranding from a company called Ourcast, which had previously raised $1.3 million and launched a weather app by the same name back in April 2012. But Re explains that Ourcast’s problem, basically, was that it was built by engineers. “It didn’t have a very good product focus,” he admits. “It was more of a utility app.”
Ourcast was interesting, though, because it could predict the weather down to the minute, through a combination of weather data, algorithms, and crowdsourcing from the app’s network or users. But the company wanted to do more.
“We started looking at everyone [making weather apps] and what they’re trying to do,” explains Re. “And we took all the best features from the other apps – including our own – and combined it into one.”
The company also wanted to do something with a more visual element to it, but found they were restricted by the nature of the available tools for traditional app developers. That’s how the team ended up turning to Unity, which allowed them to map out not just the x and y axis of the radar data they pull in, but the z axis, too. This gives the new app Minutely its unique 3D view into storms, which will also be one of its key selling points to consumers.
However, while 3D weather maps is Minutely’s standout feature, the overall app experience is also well-designed, and definitely a step up from the company’s earlier efforts with Ourcast. The app’s homescreen features at-a-glance information including current temps, highs and lows, a 2-day forecast, an animated weather icon (e.g. sunny, overcast, heavy rain, etc.), and a chart that displays both the temperature and chance of rain over the next 24 hours.
From this main screen, tapping on various elements or “view more” links will offer more details, like a written-out “full forecast” for the day, an extended forecast for the week ahead, a rain gauge, or, if you tap the weather icon, a way to report the weather yourself.
A “Waze” For Weather
This is another one of Minutely’s notable features – it’s also a crowdsourced weather application, where user reporting actually helps to inform its model. That is, if a certain number of users report data that contradicts what Minutely’s weather feeds and algorithms say, the weather report changes. (The number of people needed for that impact to occur will grow over time as the product becomes more widely adopted.)
What’s nice about Minutely’s variation on the crowdsourced weather reporting interface, as compared with a competitor like Weathermob for example, is that the interface for reporting this data is extremely simple. You just tap on the animated homescreen icon, choose a picture, then tap “report.” Weathermob instead asks users to choose three icons – a weather descriptor, sentiment, and what the weather is good for (e.g. grilling out, golfing, etc.)
For those who want to submit more details with their weather reports in Minutely, they can do so via the prominent “Report” button, which also allows you to add a photo, write a message, or share to Facebook or Twitter. In addition to helping make Minutely’s weather reports more accurate, these reports display on the app’s map interface, though they can optionally be turned off here if getting in the way of seeing the radar data and storms.
The 3D visualization of the precipitation is the app’s big whiz-bang feature of course, and Re says this will be improved in time. Because the app is built on Unity, they’ll be able to display the rain as droplets and the snow as flakes, and so on, to give you a better feeling of what kind of weather is happening where. It’s worth noting that the 3D element actually works better on Android, and doesn’t run well on anything below an iPhone 4S. It’s also hard to say how practical such a feature is – many may find the traditional 2D maps meet their needs, as is. But assuming users are really sold on 3D, the company may decide to break that off as an in-app upgrade in the future.
But at the end of the day, it may not be the 3D interface that’s the bigger sell here, but rather, the crowdsourcing. Following the acquisition of Waze by Google, there’s a renewed interest in what else crowdsourcing can do via a network of mobile devices. Weather is an obvious fit.
Ourcast had grown to some 30,000 active users, but those who remaining will be pushed to the new Minutely app starting tomorrow since the company can’t maintain both apps going forward.
Minutely soft-launched a few days ago, ahead of today’s more public debut. The company, a distributed team of five full-time in Melbourne and San Francisco, plans to raise its Series A later this year.