Over at Global Immersion, a provider of fulldome digital projection systems that is based in the UK, they’re excited about immersive theater design. In the past year, the company has installed fulldome systems in San Francisco (California Academy of Sciences, opened 27 Sept 2008), Denver (Museum of Nature & Science) and Dubai (Children’s City Planetarium) as well as the Swedish Museum of Natural History, INTECH Science Centre, Plymouth University, the Renaissance Computing Institute and NASA Ames.
Chief Executive Martin Howe has more than 25 years’ experience in engineering and designing these projects. He recently chatted with Carolyn Collins Petersen about the San Francisco experience.
Q. What are the specifics of the work you did for the California Academy of Sciences?
A. In a nutshell, our team engineered and fitted the display system, part of the theater control and management system, and one of the three backend server clusters.
For the display hardware, we installed what we call “Fidelity Bright.” We integrated six projectiondesign® F30 sxga+ DLP™ projectors into the theater, each projecting a resolution of 1400×1050 and with fully configurable brightness up to 6500 ANSI lumens. They are ideal for projecting the night sky and other scientific content onto the dome. We custom designed and fitted our optical blending technology so that the audience views one large, uniform image.
The back end of the system is our Global Immersion Media Server, which streams uncompressed, high-resolution content straight into the dome. It is one of three content sources, along with Mercator™, a technology that allows quick and seamless cross-fading between sources. Morrison is currently screening its own fulldome show ”Fragile Planet.” We worked with them to render and integrate SCISS’ Uniview software, which was used to make up some of the space-flight scenes. We also designed and created a software application that automates parts of the show production workflow.
Q. Much of the work in the museum is the result of a collaboration of many different companies and groups. What companies did you work with on the Morrison project and how did their roles complement yours?
A. The California Academy of Sciences was keen to use as many different vendors and suppliers as possible in the design and construction of the new institution. Visual Acuity provided the technical visualization design consultants. The Morrison Planetarium project itself involved collaboration with Sky-Skan Inc., which installed a 6-channel output definiti graphics cluster that feeds one source of content into the Fidelity Bright display system. We have worked with both Sky-Skan and Visual Acuity before, so we all already understood the processes and people involved.
SCISS AB of Sweden provided its Uniview software for a real-time computer cluster. It works alongside our own server rack and displays a beautiful real-time data visualization platform that can fly the audience through the universe (literally!) Meyer Sound® designed and installed a great audio system which really enhances the fully 180-degree immersive experience.
There is a huge requirement for regular and comprehensive communication between all organizations involved with such installations – especially when everyone is working toward such a fixed, tight deadline, and Jim Sweitzer of Science Communications Consultants acted as the project manager.
It was sometimes challenging when all of the teams had to work around each other with hundreds of meters of cabling, speakers, projectors and various other equipment in the vicinity, but the professionalism and dedication of everyone involved ensured that it worked out perfectly.
Q. What are the principles of theater design that Global Immersion seeks to bring to its client installations?
A. Detail, detail and more detail. We go to what some might think are ridiculous measures to make sure that the display is as good as it can be. A dome is probably the most demanding visual system in the world. If you don’t have a process for dealing with the many challenges, the audience will see the shortcomings that can detract from the experience. It’s so important to perfect the experience. We make sure that video playback is uncompressed, that servers are fully synchronized, and that there is more storage than you can shake a stick at! With bigger and better shows being released, and high audience expectations, it’s imperative that the system be up to the job.
Q. What do you want visitors to retain from the experience?
A. Domes offer unique experiences. We want the audience to be captivated by content, to feel emotion from what they see and hear. We believe strongly in the “immersive theater” concept–that everything you can see and hear is all around you. It really enhances the experience, from both educational and entertainment perspectives. For every person who enters an immersive space, the technology needs to be invisible. This lets the content quality shine through, and lets the audience feel that they are an integral part of that show.
Q. What do you personally think of the California Academy of Sciences? Have you had a chance to walk through the exhibits, see the aquariums?
A. This has been an amazing project. You can see the quality for yourself in the design of the building, the way the spaces work together. This massive project was created and managed by an experienced team of high-quality people and companies. Everything has been done properly. Decisions have been prompt, pragmatic and high-quality. During the final testing period when we were leaving for the evening, I would walk across the bridge and look back at that beautiful building and know that it would stand out as a flagship project for years to come. We are really proud to have been involved.
The aquarium is a fascinating space, but by far my favorite thing (alongside the planetarium) is to see the penguins. I go and visit them every chance I get. They love people, especially the kids. I got to know the lady who looks after them – apparently penguins are not quite as cuddly as they appear. She’s got the cuts and bruises to prove it!
Images: (from the top)
1. A space scene on the Morrison Planetarium dome shown through the Global Immersion system. Photo copyright Tim Griffith (used by permission).
2. Martin Howe, CEO of Global Immersion.
3. A CAD model of the Morrison Planetarium Design
4. The Morrison Planetarium server room where all the magic is made. Copyright Blair Parkin, Visual Acuity. Used by permission.
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