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The world of fulldome: IMERSA Summit 2014 explores immersive media

In Gates dome 3Cross-industry dialog
The field of immersive, media-based experiences got a boost when IMERSA welcomed some 200 professionals to its annual Summit, March 6-9 in Denver, to share creative tools, information and business models for planetariums, science centers, and visitor attractions. IMERSA is a nonprofit founded in 2008 on a vision of the potential of digital dome video (“fulldome”) to drive the future of immersive media and digital cinema. The sectors of media production, computer graphics, giant screen cinema, virtual reality, themed entertainment, science education and multimedia arts were all represented at the 2014 Summit.

(Above: In the Gates Planetarium dome at IMERSA Summit 2014. Photo: Mie Kosaka)

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By positioning the fulldome niche within the larger context of family leisure offerings, IMERSA strives to help dome theaters and content creators become more competitive. Over the past 15 years, hundreds of planetariums around the world have replaced or supplemented their opto-mechanical starball projectors with sophisticated multi-projector, 360 digital dome video (“fulldome”) systems - quietly growing an international network of high-end specialty theaters that keep pushing the technology envelope – some all the way to 8K stereo 3D at 60 frames per second. 

Jeri Panek with IMERSA leadership March 8(left to right: Michael Daut, Jeri Panek, Ryan Wyatt, Judith Rubin, Dan Neafus, Ed Lantz. Jeri Panek of Evans & Sutherland was presented with IMERSA's Lifetime Achievement Award. Click here for photo library)

IMERSA’s core leadership consists of the four-person Board: Dan Neafus (Gates Planetarium), Michael Daut (Evans & Sutherland), Ryan Wyatt (California Academy of Sciences), and Ed Lantz (Vortex Immersion), with communications/development staff Judith Rubin.

IMERSA’s lead sponsors include: Sky-Skan, Evans & Sutherland and the Denver Museum of Nature & Science, joined by California Academy of Sciences, Discovery Dome, Dome 3D, Electrosonic, Holovis, Konica Minolta, Loch Ness Productions, SCISS, Seiler Instruments, Vortex Immersion and Zeiss. IMERSA also receives significant help from a network of industry advisers and volunteers.

More details of IMERSA Summit 2014 can be found on the official blog. In 2015, the IMERSA Summit will again be hosted in Denver, tentatively scheduled for the first week of March. Check for updates at www.IMERSA.org.

Sessions and screenings
Strengthening the partnership between IMERSA and GSCA (Giant Screen Cinema Association), Tammy Seldon (GSCA Executive Director) and Dan Neafus helmed a March 5 workshop on best practices, the day prior to the Summit, with 25 industry leaders from the fulldome and giant-screen sectors. This historic gathering, moderated by Toby Mensforth of Mensforth & Associates, laid the groundwork to formalize industry standard practices for dome display systems and fulldome media, a founding goal of the IMERSA leadership.

Some 80% of the total registrants were on hand the next day (March 6) for the professional development sessions, which gave an overview of current fulldome production tools and techniques from some of the leading producers and animators in the field.

With close to 200 delegates, the 2014 IMERSA Summit was at capacity. About half of the people who gathered at sessions and screenings in the Summit's four venues (Denver Museum of Nature & Science, Sie Film Center, Holiday Inn Denver East Stapleton, and Fiske Planetarium) represented exhibitors of one sort or another: planetariums, museums, science centers, educational institutions, and entertainment operators.  Delegates hailed from the Americas, Europe and Asia.

IMERSA drew on juried competitions at international festivals for its slate of best-of-the-best fulldome screenings: “Dream to Fly,” “MUSICA,” “To Space and Back,” “Supervolcanoes,” “Dinosaurs at Dusk,” “The Life of Trees,” and “Flight of the Butterflies.” Friday sessions were devoted to case studies from the producers of these featured shows.

Featured speakers
Jeri Panek of Evans & Sutherland received IMERSA's lifetime achievement award, celebrated for her contributions as an industry evangelist who brought digital technology to the planetarium field, and created the basis of today’s fulldome community. Panek recognized the opportunity that computer graphics represented to planetariums and helped drive a transformation that began with the very first Digistar I sale to the Science Museum of Virginia in the early 1980s.

As keynote speaker, Dr. Donna Cox of the National Center for Supercomputing inspired delegates by declaring and demonstrating that we are in the midst of a “golden age of science visualization” in which art, media, data, and science intersect. Modern datasets are empowering new ways to present data for education, analysis, and storytelling. Fulldome films in which Cox has been part of the creative team include “Dynamic Earth” and “Black Holes: The Other Side of Infinity.”

Exhibits and game-changers
The IMERSA Marketplace opened its doors for a half-day with a full house of tabletop exhibits, allowing delegates to network and conduct business. A panel moderated by Patrick McPike (Adler Planetarium) addressed storytelling and immersive media, with Ryan Wyatt  and themed entertainment producers Rick Rothschild and Daren Ulmer (Mousetrappe). The panel helped illustrate how projects in domes and immersive theaters, science centers and space centers, some utilizing projection mapping and some integrating ride systems, are close cousins of what's going on in planetariums.

Probable and promising game changers explored at the Summit included WorldWide Telescope (presented by Doug Roberts of Microsoft Research); Oculus Rift virtual reality headsets, and products that fuse gaming, motion and fulldome (presented by Alan Caskey of Holovis) plus demonstrations of high frame rate, 8K projection at Fiske Planetarium.

8K grand finale at Fiske
Delegates boarded buses to Boulder for the Summit’s grand finale, hosted by Fiske in its recently upgraded theater with a chevron seating plan, 65-foot diameter screen and new Sky-Skan display system. A range of viewpoints came out in the “Pros & Perils of 8K” panel organized by Patrick McPike and Chris Maytag (Fiske), including Staffan Klashed (SCISS), Andrew Johnston (NASM’s Einstein Planetarium), Steve Savage (Sky-Skan), Michael Daut, and Ryan Wyatt. The demos and screenings that followed, particularly “To Space and Back” in 8K 60 fps, seemed to produce near-consensus on the visual evidence that venues in a position to take the 8K leap will find the pros are worth the perils - and that 4K content also benefits from display on an 8K system.

Fulldome 8K is still very new, with just seven installations around the world:

  • Museum für Naturkunde Westfälisches Landesmuseum mit Planetarium, Münster, Germany
  • Adler Planetarium, Chicago
  • Macao Science Center
  • Fiske Planetarium, Boulder
  • Science Museum of Virginia, Richmond
  • Museum of Transport, Lucerne, Switzerland
  • Einstein Planetarium, Smithsonian National Air & Space Museum, Washington DC

Looking ahead
Next steps for IMERSA following the successful 2014 Summit include seeking the best way to strategically grow the organization, gradually expand its Board, advisers network and committees, and plan future collaborations, professional development opportunities, and satellite events that benefit the membership. The organization welcomes active members to participate in ongoing standards work, volunteer for the 2015 Summit Committee, and contribute to the IMERSA presence being planned for SIGGRAPH 2015 in Los Angeles.

About IMERSA
IMERSA is a professional trade association recognized as a non-profit 501 (c) (6) Corp. IMERSA's vision: To build an international community of professionals who create large-scale immersive digital experiences. IMERSA's mission: To advance and promote the art and science of large-scale digital immersive media, fulldome, and immersive group experiences in digital planetariums, mobile domes, themed entertainment and giant screen theaters. (There is no fee to sign up and become a registered user at www.IMERSA.org.)


What is fulldome?
Fulldome is digital video projected onto, and filling, a hemispherical dome screen. A fulldome system can range from a single fisheye projector for a small portable dome, to 20+ edge blended projectors for the largest domes (up to 80 feet in diameter). Fulldome systems can play back "pre-rendered" shows, and also generate real-time imagery and navigate digital databases. The first fulldome systems grew out of the digital planetarium industry and advances in computer graphics. Fulldome systems continue to improve with advances in digital cinema and there are now systems capable of showing movies at 8K resolution, 60 frames per second and in stereo 3D.

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