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June 1997

CU seniors perk up ML weather kiosk with Java

CU computer science students Steve Humphries, Adam Junge, Masaru Ryumae, and Clayton Seely spent the 1996-97 academic year working with Unidata's Ben Domenico, developing a computer kiosk that displays weather reports, forecasts, and historic data. Their senior project transformed NCAR's DOS-based kiosk (funded in 1995 by the National Science Foundation) into the new Java Forecasting Kiosk ensconced on the second floor of the Mesa Lab. A second kiosk at the Denver Museum of Natural History will be updated and reinstalled soon. CU's Bruce Sanders directs the two-semester software engineering design course that brought the students to Unidata; Tom Bettge (Climate and Global Dynamics Division) played a major advisory role.

Tom Bettge, CU's Clayton Seely, and Ben Domenico flank the new Java forecasting kiosk. (Photo by Carlye Calvin.)

The old, DOS-based kiosk had to shut down three or four times a day, reboot in network mode, and download new data files previously transferred from the Internet to a UNIX-based FTP (file transfer protocol) server in CGD. Then the system would reboot once again in kiosk mode. Maintaining or altering the FTP system and proprietary kiosk software was a cumbersome process.

The students' solution: eliminate the UNIX server and do everything within the kiosk by using the newest developments in hypertext markup language (HTML) and Java technology. "This is a major improvement--there's a whole component of the old system that's been done away with. The new kiosk goes directly to the World Wide Web to get files. You don't have to worry about setting up some other piece somewhere else," explains Ben. With the students' Java programs, files are now transferred in the background, without interrupting the kiosk display.

The new software allows the person administering the system to change or add Internet sites and control the file retrieval schedule. The system administrator also controls the "look" of the kiosk by modifying HTML files. Some of these run Java applets created by the students. The current kiosks use Windows 95 with Internet Explorer as the browser, but every effort was made to minimize those portions of the system that depend on a specific platform.

"We made the decision to come up with a complete product that was a working system," explains Ben. "So the kinds of problems the students grappled with were quite different from the sole focus on programming of past Unidata student projects." Clayton notes that "a lot of thought went into this to produce a small amount of code." For example, once the students realized that a simple text editor would give the system administrator more control than the Java-driven graphic interface they were working on, they went back to the proverbial drawing board: "We probably threw away as much code as we left in for the system administrator interface," says Clayton.

Because of the portability of Java and HTML, most components of the system can run on a PC, a Macintosh, or UNIX hardware. Interactions with the Web are via dial-up modem or direct Ethernet connection.

The ability to transfer files from the Web at scheduled times has the potential for a wide variety of applications. Kiosk designers are not limited to gathering weather information, and the file transfer mechanism can be used by anyone needing continual updates from Internet sites.

The kiosk displays video clips as well as still and animated images and text. Users press large, touch-screen "buttons" to view current weather, weather forecasts, or recent weather events. Pressing buttons on the current weather submenu, for example, selects satellite images, surface maps, or local weather.

Visitors to the kiosk just outside the Director's Conference Room on the second floor of the Mesa Lab are greeted by a sign explaining that it's in beta test mode and warning: "Problems should be expected! Please be patient!" But despite the need for debugging, Ben is pleased with the kiosk's development. "This project was extremely challenging for the students, since people were already using the kiosk. They created a whole system, integrating hardware and software, and using some of their own code but a lot of off-the-shelf components. It was the most fun and the most productive student project I've worked on."

NSF headquarters is planning to install a new Java Forecasting Kiosk in the lobby of the Geosciences Directorate. You can take a Web tour of the kiosk. • Zhenya Gallon

Kiosk partners supplying Web site images

KCNC StormCenter 4
Purdue: WXP The Weather Processor
University of Wisconsin-Madison: Space Science and Engineering Center
WSI Corporation Intellicast
Plymouth State College Meteorology Program, Natural Science Department

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Edited by Bob Henson, bhenson@ucar.edu