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Enveloping Entertainment: Immersive Digital Cinema Abounds in the Science Museum Community

When it comes to exhibition, science museums have a track record for innovation and experimentation. Up-to-the-minute display technology seems to fit with the questing scientific mindset. It was, for instance, the science center community that adopted giant screen film exhibition starting in the 1970s, recognizing its technological novelty, potential mass appeal and its power to educate, as well as to generate revenue. However, classic giant-screen, 70mm film theaters (IMAX and the like, of the six-story-high screen variety) appear to have run their course; the network of these types of theaters is shrinking along with their audience, and museums are embracing digital video formats.

Digital Video

Digital video does not produce the same sense of novelty in and of itself that occurred with giant-screen film theaters. It is a medium that has been adopted virtually everywhere, whereas 70mm film even now isn’t something to be found in one’s living room. But there are ways to make digital video novel and uniquely branded to the venue, and to differentiate it from in-home theater in special ways. 3D/4D theaters with environmental effects and digital dome presentations are two effective approaches detailed here. Of course, differentiation likely is always to be a moving target, making it important to build such theaters with capacity for future enhancement.

Another difference from the giant-screen heyday is the increased ability of smaller venues to get into the game, affordably. Typical of the development arc for these venues are a close working relationship between client and integrator, a modular approach that allows for later expansion, the building in of multiuse capability and control systems that deliver one-button operation. Other hallmarks include in-house facilities for production/customization of content, the capability for the operator to modify and program the system in-house, and remote technical support provided by the integrator.

Short Programs

The shows in these digital theaters generally run no longer than four- to 14 minutes, keyed to a family attention-span cycle and the needs of school group scheduling. The short program run time is welcomed by the family decision maker, according to Janine Baker, VP Distribution & Development of nWave Pictures, one of the most prolific producers and distributors of 3D shows for the museum and entertainment markets.

“Most of these sites used to think they needed a 20- or 40-minute show,” noted Baker. “But the moms are now saying, ‘Thank God it’s only 15 minutes!’ They are coming primarily to see a science center, zoo or aquarium—not a cinema—and they don’t necessarily want to spend a whole day.” According to Baker, they’re also becoming more discerning about 3D quality. “It’s the ‘Avatar effect’,” she said. “Hollywood has raised the bar on 3D.”


The immersive digital dome video format known as “fulldome” is also mushrooming rapidly in science-mission institutions. Depending on dome size and configuration, a fulldome system could use a single fisheye projector or a series of two, six or more linked and edge-blended projectors. These systems have found their primary market in planetariums but are being adopted for entertainment venues and other settings.

A fulldome system offers the capability to play back “pre-rendered” animated shows via a standard format known as Dome Master, as well as the ability to navigate real-time digital databases of the universe and other environments (such as those captured by NASA and NOAA) using various software programs.

There are at least a dozen providers of fulldome systems, and there is a growing body of international festivals, seminars and conferences devoted to the medium and technology of fulldome. Associations active in the fulldome community include IMERSA (Immersive Education, Research, Science & Arts, www.imersa.org) and IPS (International Planetarium Society, www.ips-planetarium.org).

We looked at three new digital cinema installations: in the National Mississippi River Museum & Aquarium in Dubuque IA (134-seat 3D/4D theater installation by Edwards Technologies Inc., ETI), the San Diego Air & Space Museum (36-seat 3D/4D installation by MediaMation Inc.) and the Morehead Planetarium & Science Center (68-foot digital dome system installation in a 229-seat theater by Sky-Skan). These were all upgrades of existing, well-established institutions.

Dubuque’s Versatile 3D/4D Package

Currently showing nWave titlesThe World of Sharks 3DandTurtle Vision 4D, the new 3D/4D theater at the National Mississippi River Museum and Aquarium in Dubuque IA exemplifies a larger, multipurpose cinema that helps diversify and refresh the venue in a big way. ETI, headed by President/CEO
Brian Edwards, was contracted directly to the museum to supply the 134-seat theater, which was completed June 2010 and is part of a $40 million expansion that includes new galleries and a children’s educational play area.

ETI’s scope of work included design, engineering, fabrication and installation of the hardware package, and integration of the lighting, audio systems and special effects (mist, scent, fog, wind and seat shakers, effects that were applied not only to the main show, but also to commercials preceding the show). ETI Technical Director Mitch Hartmann engineered and planned the theater with Project Coordinator Dana Carsley. Installers included ETI staffers Sam Hatcher and Mike Kovach plus programmer Josh MacFarlane. The timeframe was about 18 months from the start of ETI’s involvement to completion. Museum Executive Director Jerry Enzler and CFO Alan Stache took active roles in the project.

Stereoscopic 3D

The projection system features passive stereoscopic 3D with a pair of Panasonic PT DZ12000U 12,000 lumen projectors, linear polarized 3D glasses, JBL surround sound and a 38-foot-wide by 21’6"-high perforated Harkness screen. The projection booth is at the back of the house. About the Panasonic projectors, Hartmann said, “Given the size screen, we needed a certain amount of fire power and resolution, and they also are physically compact. They have built-in geometry correction that enables them to project onto the curved screen and gather in the image and fit it precisely.”

Although more elaborate 4D theaters may include theatrical lighting for additional show effects, many stick to an architectural package as with this one, tied into ETI’s lighting controller. To make the space friendly to events and lectures, some lights are focused at the podium position. “It is typical that these theaters include some special event capability, with technology to support additional programming,” said Edwards. “It is easy to plug in a laptop and to switch function to those inputs, and to adjust the system and mics to support panel discussions and other uses. Part of our package included some wireless mics and a Blu-ray disc player.”

The modularity of the Crestron control system gives another boost to the theater’s versatility. The digital media switching provided by the input modules supports a variety of signal sources. “This system made the ability to switch the signal much more straightforward,” explained Hartmann. “One late-arriving feature of the digital media switcher was the availability of an HD SDI module. The main 3D server has an HD SDI output and, in the past, we have converted that output to a more compatible signal. The feature was so new we could not ship racks from ETI’s shop with that preinstalled: We had to install it in the field. Still, it ended up being the neatest solution because it enabled us to avoid external adapters and do a much cleaner install.”

Cueing The Effects

The Crestron system handles the main controls while the CueServer Pro CS-800, a time-based show control device, runs the effects, tied into the Crestron user interface that includes a PC on the control rack in the booth as well as a wireless handheld device. “All these effects have to occur on cue,” noted Hartmann. “Our HD server has a SMPTE timecode output connected to the CueServer. It reads the timecode and, within its script, the necessary cues are delivered at the right time. The output of this device is mainly DMX, although it is capable of other control protocols, RS232 and others. It’s a nice little package. If we were installing a 3D theater with special-event uses but no special effects, we’d stop with the Crestron. Adding the 4D effects is adding that package controller; it’s the dividing line.”

A water spritzer is sometimes where the line is drawn: It’s something that can be added later, and involves special plumbing and drainage. The River Museum opted in for this touch of H2O, which ETI pre-assembled in its shop.

ETI’s interface with the Project Architect, Gary Schulte of The Durrant Group, Inc., included advising on overall size, shape and seating layout for the space. “We check on such things as sightlines, any particular needs for placement, any other facility impact and the infrastructure to support the equipment—the overall conduit paths, etc.,” explained Hartmann. “In this case, because we have effects, there was also discussion about HVAC to make sure the air flow direction is from the front to the back of the theater for the introduction of mist and scent effects.” The custom fog array has four remote heads for good distribution.

Transducers Spread Their Vibes

Transducers spread their vibes by way of an ETI custom bracket that clamps on the seat base, one transducer per pair of seats. Strobes and fans are attached to an overhead box truss, prewired in ETI’s shop with low-voltage distribution. The truss also furnishes some lighting positions and DMX control capacity for future use. “We try to always provide some amount of expandability,” said Edwards.

ETI helped spark the trend of museums adopting 3D digital theaters, with some of the first installations in the early 2000s at locations including the Science Museum of Minnesota, the Aquarium of the Pacific and Discovery Science Center in Santa Ana CA. The company’s other markets for 3D digital theaters and other AV technology include theme parks, universities, casinos and nightclubs, corporate visitor centers and the military.

San Diego: Driven By Content

The San Diego Air & Space Museum first opened its doors in 1963. Now, about a half century later, it has its first cinema. The 36-seat Zable Theater, open since July, is a good example of how 3D/4D digital technology is n
ow being packaged effectively and affordably for smaller venues, and how the needs of those smaller venues will diversify content production. Integrator MediaMation has completed about three dozen 3D theaters to date. The company’s entertainment clients include Merlin Entertainments (Legoland parks) and Ripley’s.

The San Diego Air & Space Museum, a Smithsonian affiliate, is a 120,000-square-foot facility located in Balboa Park, site of the California Pacific International Expo 1935-1936 World’s Fair, which post-expo became the home of numerous other cultural institutions, including the Reuben Fleet Space Center and the San Diego Natural History Museum. Both of the Fleet and Natural History Museum have well-established theaters. The Eugene Heikoff and Marilyn Jacobs Heikoff Dome Theater at the Fleet includes both an Imax dome system and a planetarium system, and divides its programming between 40-minute film documentaries and weekly star shows. The Charmaine and Maurice Kaplan Theater at the Natural History Museum has a digital 3D flat screen, converted recently from 870 film projection, and shows both 40-minute and 20-minute movies. Back at the new-generation, pocket-sized, effects-laden Zable in the Air & Space Museum, the current offerings at the Zable are nWave 3D titlesJetpack AdventureandFly Me to the Moon, which run, respectively, five and 15 minutes.

Business Models

Museums (and others) gather info on which to base their decisions about digital cinema at a variety of trade gatherings and from their fellow institutions—and from the vendors themselves, which often find it in their best interests to step into a consulting role, making the most of their specialized knowledge to help a customer formulate a realistic business plan for a new theater. “I will show them how to look at their venue and put it in perspective, to find meaningful comps in terms of market and location and so forth,” said Janine Baker. “When it first opens, a site should average a 40% to 50% capture rate. In the low season, it goes down to 15% to 25%. Those are good numbers. If they’re getting less than 10% of capture rate, there’s something wrong.”

“When we offer the whole package, we can give them a business model,” said MediaMation Project Manager Chris Seide. “Smaller parks and institutions, and even small retailers looking to generate revenue, are out there purchasing these 4D theaters as a relatively cheap investment for substantial return. If your content is on average seven minutes long, you can have five to seven shows per hour. We will help clients look at their ticketing and throughput and what else is in their institutions, and advise them on theater size and make other recommendations, doing what amounts to a feasibility study.”

DIY Approach

In addition to consulting on the business model, part of working with an institution is respecting its interest in DIY, in terms of the theater gear, as well as the content. Museums and planetariums, especially the smaller ones, are accustomed to doing more with less. They have a culture of producing in-house content tailored to local needs and tend to embrace the learning curve, howev
er sophisticated the equipment.

“It is a very exciting time for 3D,” said Baker. “There are 3D PC monitors, laptops, televisions, cable channels and 3D cameras available for the consumer, and many sites will express an interest in buying their own 3D cameras and other gear. This is the Wild West of 3D media. Work with them and let them experiment, because you want a client to be excited and enthusiastic about 3D, but also point out the need for a professionally produced presentation because attendance and capture rate are best with an experienced filmmaker as well as the seasoned theater integrator. Integrators are doing a great job of finding ways to serve this market, to bring down prices and offer smaller theaters while still providing quality. At nWave, we’re trying to do our part by making new and better 3D films every year.”

Signature Services

Just as a 3D/4D theater provides an experience people can’t easily give themselves at home, savvy integrators work with the DIY trend by providing signature services and products at attractive price points. In the case of MediaMation, it’s the signature motion seats that the company manufactures at its California headquarters, folded into a turnkey package to suit the customer. “Every AV company can put in a projector and a server,” said MediaMation Cofounder Dan Jamele. “We provide the whole experience.”

Chris Seide observed that “clients often come directly to us with their content, and we supply the turnkey package short of building the building and laying the cables.” But, “some will mix and match some of the more standard pieces of projection and audio we would normally integrate. We are clear that we don’t require they purchase 100% of their gear from us. We still supply most of it: custom items we build ourselves and equipment that can’t really be bought off the shelf at the price point we offer.”

In the case of the Zable Theater, the museum handled the electrical work, drywall and other preparation, such as building the risers. “The client provided CAD drawings of the actual building,” said Seide, “and we did drawings and callouts from there, showing where to mount cables and do air pipes, run water lines, electrical lines and bring in data lines.

“MediaMation provided and installed its pneumatic, three-axis motion seats with a gaggle of built-in effects, air systems, lighting, dual-projection video, perforated screen, the 3D polarizing mechanism that goes in front of the dual-projection system, the effects rails, and the wind fans and strobes.” The control room is behind the screen, across the hall from the theater.

Outside the US, MediaMation supplies operators through reps in Asia, Korea, Japan, Russia and the Ukraine, and reports a healthy amount of 4D theater business over the past year, international as well as domestic.

Seamless Learning Curve

For Bruce Howland, Facilities Manager at the San Diego Air &Space Museum, the learning curve “has been pretty darn seamless, intuitive and straightforward.” He praised the operational simplicity MediaMation created: “You push two buttons and that’s it; keep it stocked with 3D glasses and put a little water in the dispenser so the special effects work.”

Howland has plans for future theater programming that is more specifically tied to his museum’s air and space theme. “In addition to the current selection of animated videos, I’d like to show historical documentaries utilizing 3D and even 4D effects. We hope to either produce or locate additional content that will get people excited about flight while giving them an immersive experience. We’re still on the beginning edge of this journey. One of my original premises in the design of the theater was to create an envelope flexible enough to allow us to change and modify over time.”

Digital Dome Retrofit

“I’ve seen some changes of technology,” said Richard McColman, who, as Fulldome Theater Director for the Morehead Planetarium & Science Center at the University of North Carolina, is in charge of the new 68-foot diameter, 229-seat GlaxoSmithKline FullDome Theater that opened in February. Formerly the Star Theater, the planetarium dates back to 1949 when the facility was only the sixth planetarium to open in the US. It received a $1.5 million gift from GlaxoSmithKline that enabled it to purchase and install the new Sky-Skan Definiti projection system.

Nearly 160,000 people visit the Science Center annually, including 85,000 schoolchildren. The former Star Theater functioned as a giant classroom for students, teachers, school groups, senior citizens, youth groups and the general public. As the US space program began, the Morehead provided training for US astronauts from the Mercury program to the Apollo-Soyuz program.

McColman, who has worked in the planetarium sector for more than two decades—the past 18 years at the Morehead—recalled early automated planetarium systems in which “you were still controlling a whole pile of pieces of different equipment, including slide projectors and optomechanical projectors, all coordinated with a computer control system but with a kind of Rube Goldberg approach.” He noted that even fulldome technology is still evolving: “We can’t get the inherent resolution to cover the entire hemispheric dome with a single graphics computer: In our situation with 4k, it takes eight graphics computers fed into the projection equipment, but it operates in a more streamlined manner.”

McColman cited the decision to go fulldome as “pretty much a given,” pointing out that two mainstays of planetariums—slide projectors and CRT projectors—have passed into obsolescence. “Every planetarium is going to face this dilemma,” he said. “It does appear that, in terms of anything other than just stars from an optomechanical machine, if you want to do anything effective from a show production presentation standpoint, fulldome video is the only way to go.”

Postponed Rehab

What had been originally envisioned as a comprehensive theater overhaul was stymied by the economic downturn, so Morehead postponed the architectural rehab and focused on finding a way to integrate the new theater technology, while retaining all the older components. A protracted transition from old to new is often desirable for planetariums in any case, because these institutions tend to produce much of their content in-house. To ensure continuity, particularly for school groups that depend on certain materials for their curriculum, a timeframe of 12 months or longer allows a window for translating shows into the new format.

Existing equipment was moved around in the theater and reconfigured in the perimeter projection gallery to carve out space for the two new Sony projectors. Sometime around May 2011, Morehead expects to decommission the old technology, including the 41-year-old Zeiss Mark VI optomechanical starball projector. Currently, the Zeiss “sits in a position where it has long blocked some sightlines from the audience,” explained McColman. “The architecture of the building is such that it can’t be on a lift or elevator, so it actually blocks about the lower five to seven degrees on the front and rear of dome, a little hump silhouette.”

When it comes out, Morehead may use that spot as a stage and presentation area, which would put the lecturer fairly close to the audience. Reconfiguring the center of the room will form a prime area for other kinds of presentations, such as lectures. Longer term, there is a plan to install new, removable seats so the space can also open up for special events.

Sky-Skan Theater Designer Kurt Berna and Project Manager George Barnett worked with McColman and Morehead Chief Technician Steve Nichol to configure the new theater in the existing building. Sky-Skan President Steve Savage was involved in initial meetings to introduce the technology to the university. The level of support Sky-Skan provides generally includes a post-installation visit/inspection from Savage in addition to the services of the company’s install crew, project management team, production staff and training staff.

Existing Sound System

It was decided to incorporate the existing JBL sound system that had been installed about 10 years earlier. Berna consulted with his JBL engineering contact, Paul Hanoud. “We have a good relationship with JBL,” Berna said. “We don’t use them exclusively, but we get good support from them and often recommend them.” The system gained a new DSP and a new layout of the speakers and amps.

Based on a number of Sky-Skan demos, the client selected the Sony SXRD projectors, which presented installation challenges in that they “are very large, put out lots of heat and are noisier than a typical projector,” said Berna. “We had to create an environment to keep them cool, isolate the noise pollution from the theater and also to mount them in a way to give the required coverage and correct geometry. There wasn’t enough depth for standard positioning, so we had to mount them vertically. A lot of large-format projectors have limitations on how much you can turn them, but these are capable of going outside that range: We could stand them on end to project straight up with a custom mounting system, both for the projector and the mirror we had to position just above the lens, in order to bounce the image back across the theater. One projector points north and the other south, and each covers half the dome.”

Edge blending is accomplished through a combination of physical masking and proprietary control software, which also handles dimming the lights, running the projectors and other tasks. Another critical part of the package from Sky-Skan’s treasure chest of proprietary software is DigitalSky, the real-time navigation program for creating dynamic, immersive visualizations of astronomical and other science disciplines.

Tying in control of the older components’ key features along with those of the new system is a custom manual panel specific to this install. Depending on how involved the user wants to get, an individual operator can push a button on this panel to start the show, or drive the system with mouse and keyboard, or use a joystick. There is capacity to stream in multiple video sources and put them anywhere on the screen. “You can cover the dome with live video feeds or content from a DVD,” said Berna. The system also has the networking backbone to teleconference with other domes if the operators choose to set up a camera system for it.

Another important integration item is the UPS (uninterruptible power supply) support for the video projectors, which enforces gradual cooling of the projectors as part of shutdown should there be a power failure, while also notifying the operator of the situation. If the lamp isn’t allowed to cool properly, the system can be damaged. Sky-Skan also provides its own dimmer controls for LCD monitors to bring them down almost to zero light output and avoid light pollution in the dome.

LED Fixtures

ETC Selador LED fixtures were selected to light the theater interior. “They provide nice dome coverage,” said Berna, “and can be manipulated like theatrical lights, with options for colors and blending and shaping. They can supply ambient lighting for special events and concerts, and lighting designers can work with them. When they’re on full, they’re also very good for cleaning.” Versatility in the lighting system helps support multiple uses of the space.

Some months prior to opening, Sky-Skan also set up a fulldome production facility for the Morehead, located elsewhere on the campus. It includes a complete set of software tools, a render farm, server and storage units. “A projection system only takes about a month to install, but a production can take 12 months,” noted Berna.

Sky-Skan’s biggest market is planetariums, but the company has also provided a variety of projection systems for dome screens, curved screens, panoramic screens and flat screens for museum exhibits, special events, environmental effects and other displays, including the Saudi Arabia pavilion at Shanghai Expo 2010, a special event for Cartier and the Millennium Falcon cockpit experience within the Star Wars traveling exhibition (currently at the US Space & Rocket Center in Huntsville AL).

Now showing at the Morehead: Earth, Moon & Sun, the facility’s first in-house fulldome production, being well received by school groups and the public; another Morehead production, Magic Tree House Space Mission, which ties in with the book series of the same name and was produced in collaboration with the authors,Black Holes, Astronaut, Heart of the Sunand the live showCarolina Skies. Morehead has successfully marketedEarth, Moon & Sunto several other fulldome sites, generating revenue for them beyond their local audience.

Digital theater is an affordable way to refresh an established venue, whether large or small. But, as more and more venues get on board, content gaps appear. Like 70mm theaters were before them, digital multimedia theaters are an extension of a venue’s exhibitions and are in service to its mission, although they also have the power to diversify the exhibitions and the audience and broaden the mission. But some things never change: Ultimately, content and not technology is the primary draw and differentiator of a visitor attraction.

Used with permission of Testa Communications from the September 2010 issue of Sound & Communications magazine. For digital subscription information, go towww.soundandcommunications.com.

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