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Digital Dome-ocracy: Fulldome Systems are Good News for Science Education

Fulldome projection uses edgeblended projectors or even a single, fisheye lens unit to project digital content onto a dome screen. In the decade or so since fulldome was introduced, this immersive format has transformed the way planetarium shows are produced and the number of installations has grown to nearly 400.

Soon after IPM Magazine asked me to investigate the world of fulldome production, I found myself sprawled out on the floor in the pitch-dark. A tall, gangly figure loomed in my field of view. I had a brief flashback to the years I lived in London - could this be Dr. Who, the British television wizard, come to re-ignite my energy field, rescue me from shape-shifting aliens, or transport me to other worlds?

Despite the flowing mane of Sixtiesstyle hair, the multiple strands ofAfrican glass-bead necklaces, andthe long silk scarf, this was a new,very modern breed of wizard, whosewand is a mouse and whose lab is adigital dome. It was Carter Emmart,director of astrovisualization for theHayden Planetarium at theAmerican Museum ofNatural Historyin NewYorkCity. In his arms was a rolled-upcarpet.

Carter was indeed there to transport me to other worlds. He unrolled the carpet and bade me climb aboard.

All at once, I was floating in space, looking upon the Earth as it was just a couple of hours before, recordedby the MODIS sensor on the Terra satellite, downlinked to ASA/Goddard, fed to JPL’s World Wind interactive global viewing software and compiled at JPL into an evolving, high resolution, color global mosaiccalled the Daily Planet, then sent out over the Internet to be downloaded andprojected on the Hayden’s 69-foot-diameter fulldome digital video presentation system. I glanced over to see Carter, dimly visible in the glow of a computer monitor, with what might have been a maniacal grin on his face.

“OK,” he yelled out, “this is what I call ‘the Powers of Ten with a steering wheel.’ Here we go!”

Earth dropped away and the moon sped past. We rose up out of the solar system, zoomed past Alpha Centauri, then left the Orion Arm of the Milky Way and flew past the Andromeda Galaxy. Now every point of light was an entire galaxy. Soon they coalesced into ineffably giganticclusters and super-clusters of galaxies. Then we stopped, with the visible universe spread out before us.

“Yeah,” Carter exulted, “that was 25orders of magnitude on steroids!”

I knew Carter was playing with my head. In 1996, I directed a largeformat film titled “Cosmic Voyage,” which featured a cosmic zoom through the universe. Like the classic Eames/Morrison film “Powers of Ten,” it was based on the wonderful 1957 Dutch schoolbook “Cosmic View,” by Kees Boeke. “Cosmic View” created a powerful new paradigm for understanding our place in the Universeby first widening, then narrowing our view of a simple scene - a girl in a chair in the schoolyard - by orders of magnitude.

But Boeke would have been simply blown away by what Carter and his colleagues at the Hayden - as well as increasing numbers of theirpeers at other companies andinstitutions - can now do with thisconcept. They can “drive” theirdomes and audiences almostanywhere in the universe, at anyspeed, and do it differently eachtime. What they are actually doingis real-time navigation of DigitalUniverse, a three-dimensional,digital database. A given trip throughthe dbase can berecorded via realtime scripting software, and playedback at will. The leading fulldomesystems are Evans& SutherlandDigistar 3, Spitz SciDome, and SkySkan definiti; however, there arenumerous other providers includingRSA Cosmos, Zeiss, GOTO, Barco,Konica Minolta, Elumenati, Digitalis,e-Planetarium, Swinburne andLearning Technologies. The AMNH/Hayden group recently used Univiewvisualization software to script andproduce its 20-minute “Field Trip tothe Moon.” Creating a show in thisway costs a fraction of what it coststo produce a giant-screen film. Bothdbase and show can be ceaselesslyupdated as astronomers continue tounlock the secrets of space.

Lying there on Carter’s magic carpet, I was impressed by what it is now possible to capture and at how much less expense. Cosmic Voyage had certainly broken new ground in presenting digital visualizations of
outer space on giant-screen film, but it had taken a long time and a lot of money to achieve. And, as a film, it may be immortalized but it is definitely not easy to update. But in 1995 I had had a glimpse of this near-future. On our Cosmic Voyage CG team were Donna Cox and Bob Patterson of the National Center for Supercomputing Applications in Champaign, IL. They had begun experimenting with an immersive system called Virtual Director, a kind of space-flight simulator. Their work, along with that of Hayden scientists,Swedish grad students, and many others to combine the Hayden’s own “Digital Universe” with static, academically-compiled astronomical data sets like the Tully and Sloan Digital Sky Surveys, presaged thereal-time interactive visualization technologies that are being used to create today’s fulldome flythroughs.

Recently, Carter visited a school inCambodia, opened his laptop, andlogged onto the Hayden website. In afew minutes, with a few mouse-clicks,he and the Cambodian students were“driving” the big planetarium domein New York from half a world away.With a Skype hookup, they could alsotalk to the audience at Hayden, makejoint decisions on what galaxies to flythrough, and discuss what they saw.

There’s also a lot of buzz about “dome-casting.” I chatted about its possibilities recently with David Beining of the Lodestar Astronomy Center at the University of New Mexico, Albuquerque. “If a dome theater has booked a famouslecturer,” posits Beining, “they could link up with others and share that lecture and its associated real-time, interactive imagery with many other domes, small and large.”

Combining the powers of the Internet and the immersive digital dome (not to mention the ever-growing power
and naturalism of CGI) conjures up exciting new possibilities for science education.

In addition to what’s possible with the real-time, database fly-throughs, all fulldome packages have playback systems for exhibiting pre-rendered shows. There’s a growing library of these shows, created on a common Domemaster format so that any pre-rendered fulldome show can be played back on any fulldome system.

According to Jeri Panek, director of sales for Evans &Sutherland, thefulldome revolution really started toroll in 2002 - when the first fulldome systems capable of showing both real-time and pre-rendered CGI colorgraphics – such as E&S Digistar 3 -were introduced and demonstrated at the International Planetarium Society (IPS) conference in Wichita, KS. Both E&S in Salt Lake City and its wholly owned subsidiary, E&SSpitz in Chadds Ford, PA, are prolific producers of fulldome shows.

“There is an expanding amount ofnon-astronomy content available.Sky-Skan has been demonstratingmolecular models in real-time forseveral years. Some of our clientshave been using their systemsto visualize physics and biologyconcepts.” In fact, these planetariumgeeks are creating shows depictingweather, ancient Greece and Egypt,the human body, molecules, thesinking of the Titanic, pop music andjust plain art.While planetariums are currently the chief market, fulldome can take an audience to other places besides space. As Paul Tetu, sales & systems specialist, Sky-Skan, points out,

“There is more non-astronomicalcontent now, but still not as muchas I’d like to see,” says DavidBeining, who also runs the annualDomeFest, a showcase of fulldomeshowsand art projects. The nextDomeFest will take place in ChicagoJuly 3, immediately following the IPSmeeting at the Adler Planetarium,June 27-July 2. Another opportunityto experience the medium is theE&S Spitz Fulldome Showcase at theannual meeting of ASTC, this year inPhiladelphia Oct. 18-21.

Production of these shows is stilloverwhelmingly in the digital realm.It is possible to shoot live-actionfilm and transfer it to digital, butthere’s still no live-action digitalmovie camera capable of capturinga sufficiently high-res image forfulldome display. Fulldome producersaren’t (yet) sending cameras upin the Space Shuttle, to the top ofEverest, or across the Gobi Desert.Budgets for pre-rendered shows (which may employ sizable teams of artists and render farms) range fromabout $200,000 up to the sevenfigure stratosphere of the Hayden Planetarium’s three productions to date. According to Tetu, most pre-rendered shows land in the $400,000-$500,000 range, whereas real-time shows can be produced at much lower cost, often just the cost of the time required to program them.

Fulldome systems are facilitating a kind of democracy for educational institutions in terms of presentation and affordability. Systems come in all sizes and all budgets. They can all make use of the same library of
pre-rendered content. Relatively low costs enable many venues to produce their own shows. Most existing
fulldome systems are in domes 40-feet in diameter and smaller, with a significant number in the 50-foot range and a few at the 70-foot rank. On the grand scale are such venues as the Samuel Oschin Planetarium atGriffith Observatory in Los Angeles(76-foot dome with E&S Digistar 3),and the Albert Einstein Planetarium atthe National Air and Space Museumin Washington, DC (70-foot domewith Sky-Skan definiti). The Haydenlikes to stay on the cutting edgeand its current custom configurationincludes a Nvidia PC cluster forreal-time interactivity, a playbacksystem from Global Immersionand an array of Projection Designf-30 DLP projectors. The manysmaller planetariums and theaterswith fulldome systems installedinclude the 31-foot dome of the NeilArmstrong Planetarium at AltoonaArea High School in Altoona, PAand 40-foot Travelers Science Domeat the Gengras Planetarium of theChildren’s Museum in West Hartford,CT (both Spitz SciDome systems).In addition, schools and educationalinstitutions are purchasing portabledomes that use fulldome systems.Mike Bruno, creative media directorof E&S Spitz, estimates the currenttotal number of installed fulldomesystems is close to 400. Beining saysit’s about 375. That total could reach600-800 within a few years.

“This is an exciting time for thefulldome industry,” says Jeri Panek.“With the wide variety and number ofshows being created for this medium,it is sure to become a major playerin the educational, entertainment,and film markets for many years tocome.”

I believe the democracy of the domewill become even more widespreadthan we can now imagine. Howeverit unfolds, it’s going to be good newsfor the future of science education.

Bayley Silleck has been directing,writing, and producing documentaryfilms since 1973. In recent years, hehas directed and/or produced sevengiant-screen films, including CosmicVoyage, which received an AcademyAward nomination in 1997, and wascommissioned by the Smithsonian’sNational Air and Space Museum. Heis a voting member of the Academyof Motion Picture Artsand Sciences andserves as a screeningcommittee memberof the DocumentaryBranch. His mostrecent giant-screenfilms are Wiredto Win: Survivingthe Tour de France(2005) and Dinosaurs Alive 3D(2007).

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