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Three days in the dome in Denver: LF Examiner reports on the 2012 IMERSA Fulldome Summit

by James Hyder

Reprinted with kind permission from LF Examiner, published by Cinergetics LLC. www.lfexaminer.com

About 120 people braved more than a foot of snow to attend the IMERSA Summit in Denver, CO, Feb. 3–5. IMERSA, which stands for Immersive Media, Entertainment, Research, Science, and Arts, is a trade association that brings together digital fulldome theaters, planetariums, and giant-screen theaters. The meeting included screenings of fulldome shows, panel discussions, presentations, and a recognition banquet, and opened with “Fulldome 101,” an optional one-day workshop that introduced the tools and techniques of fulldome production to newcomers to the medium.

But the night before the Friday workshop was scheduled to start, about 15 inches (38 centimeters) of snow fell on the Denver area, snarling ground and air traffic. A number of delegates who had planned on arriving on Friday found their flights delayed or canceled. Although the Denver Museum of Nature and Science, the meeting’s host, would otherwise have been closed for such weather, the staff opened the building on Friday morning so the workshop could proceed. Most of those who had planned to attend the workshop had arrived before the snow began, and so only had to find their way from their hotels to the museum. In the end, about a dozen people were delayed by the snow, and only two unfortunate delegates never made it to Denver.

The meeting was quite unusual in its mix of people from the giant-screen and planetarium worlds. Although there has always been some overlap — more than 40 giant-screen dome theaters are also planetariums, and perhaps a dozen GS theaters are in museums that have separate planetariums — previous conferences were predominantly oriented to one or the other type of venue. About one-third of the Denver participants were from GS theaters, with the remaining two-thirds from fulldomes or planetariums.

The major theme of the meeting was the growing convergence of planetariums, fulldomes, and giant-screen dome and flat-screen theaters. Several presenters spoke about the lessons the fulldome community could learn from the experience of GS filmmakers, and about sharing content among the various types of venue.

The mood was upbeat and optimistic, as people from the different segments learned about new digital production and projection technologies that might soon be available for their theaters. Producers from the fulldome world have mostly been creating their shows with computer graphics, and have only just begun thinking about shooting live-action footage for dome shows. They learned that many of the problems they are now confronting, from framing to cross-reflectance, were faced, and to some degree solved, by giant-screen filmmakers 30 to 40 years ago. Producers from the GS world learned about the practices and problems inherent in distributing content to fulldome theaters, no two of which are exactly alike in their configuration.

Despite the challenges the two groups face, all seemed genuinely interested in the creative, technical, and business practices of their counterparts, and hopeful that “convergence” could turn out to be more than just a buzz-word.

Fulldome 101

The Fulldome 101 workshop consisted of a number of talks and demonstrations intended to explain the principles and technologies of fulldome show production. Oscar-winning filmmaker Ben Shedd offered his experience in making giant-screen films, such as Seasons (1987) and Tropical Rain Forest (1992) to those making fulldome shows, whether with CGI or live-action shooting. He credited veteran GS cameraman David Douglas with this simple demonstration of the difference between IMAX (flat giant-screen) and what was then called OMNIMAX (now IMAX Dome): take a standard 8.5x11-inch piece of paper, and hold it about 11 inches from your face. Since most classic GS IMAX theaters place all seats less than one screen-width from the screen, this approximates the audience’s field of view for IMAX. Then bring the paper closer to your face until it completely wraps around your head. “That’s OMNIMAX.”

Shedd recounted some of the principles he developed while making his GS films. His article, “Exploding the Frame,” [at this link], covers many of the points raised in the talk.          

Hue Walker is a founding member and senior artist with ARTS Lab at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque. She described how she changed her perspective on making fulldome shows while attending the Cosmix 2010 fulldome festival. “I believed that the first thing was to understand how the image fits the dome. But [the festival] had kids putting stuff on the dome without any of that.” She found that trying things and seeing what works without imposing theories in advance was very liberating. She went on to describe a number of software tools available to create shows for domes.

Spitz’s Brad Thompson talked about computer-graphic workflow for fulldome production. Productions can be 2D or 3D, although in this context 3D refers not to stereoscopic projection but to the creation of objects in a computer-generated 3D space that are later rendered into 2D images. After the original images are created, they are composited together and edited into the final product using various software tools. The final show has to be output at a resolution appropriate for the dome on which it will be shown, from 1K by 1K to 8K by 8K, and through a spherical projection to make it appear correctly on a dome. The Dome Master is a template that shows how a circular image will be mapped to the surface of a dome.

Ethan Bach is digital dome director at the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, NM. The facility has a unique hanging dome that can be oriented at any angle from flat to vertical. He showed images that his students had created using a digital SLR with a fisheye lens, and described the trial-and-error process of making the pictures work on the dome.

Barry Perlus teaches photography at Cornell University, focusing on spherical panoramas using multiple exposures stitched together digitally. Although his images are still, the considerations needed for shooting them are similar to those used in shooting live action for the full dome. And naturally, projecting spherical panoramas on a dome is a much more effective and realistic way to present them than a computer monitor or a paper print.

State of the dome

Mark C. Petersen of Loch Ness Productions gave his annual “State of the Dome” presentation, outlining the current inventory of fulldome theaters and shows worldwide. (This presentation roughly corresponded to one presented by LF Examiner editor James Hyder, which summarized the results of the special report on GS theaters published in the February issue of LFX.)

Petersen reported that there are currently nearly 1,000 fulldome theaters in the world, about 40% of which are in the U.S., the rest overseas. The majority are located in “some form of educational or cultural institution — a school or school district, a university or college, or a museum or science center.” Also, the vast majority have “planetarium” or some other astronomy-related term in their names. He pointed out that the public perceptions created by this fact tend to limit the amount of non-astronomy-related content the theaters can present.

He broke down the international counts by system provider (Evans & Sutherland, Sky-Skan, and Digitalis top the list), and also totaled the number of different shows being presented in them: nearly 1,200 bookings of 167 different titles in 938 theaters. These statistics were compiled by Petersen and his business partner/spouse Carolyn Collins Petersen, who spent several days visiting every planetarium Web site in their database, and searching the Web for those they didn’t have. “Yes, at Loch Ness Productions, we are gluttons for punishment, it would seem.”

Unfortunately, more than 400 planetariums don’t have Web sites, and of those that do, only 38% listed the shows they present. “From this, one could deduce that two-thirds of all fulldome theaters do not present commercially-distributed fulldome videos to the general public. Many present only planetariums' star talks and astronomy lectures. Many theaters in educational institutions don’t offer regular shows to the public. So in terms of judging the potential market for show distribution, this should give producers some food for thought.”

For more information, including the full text of Petersen’s presentation, along with charts and tables, visit www.lochnessproductions.com. (Click on “What’s New” for the State of the Dome page.)

Fulldome standards

Petersen followed up with a presentation entitled “Standard, What Standard?” in which he discussed the exasperating problems that independent producers and distributors experience in getting their shows to play on the 176 different models of fulldome projection systems. Although shows are produced in the Dome Master format, they are generally not delivered to theaters in that form, partly because that might enable pirating of the content. Instead the distributor or the system supplier must “slice and dice” the show to match the configuration of the specific theater.

He provided examples of the plethora of different file formats, resolutions, codecs, and other technical details involved in getting a show to run, noting that system providers often change how shows are run by different versions of the same system. This means that a show may inexplicably stop running after a manufacturer’s system upgrade.

He complained that, as a distributor, “even though we do everything we can to make [our shows] compatible, the rules are always changing. And it’s not like all the manufacturers call me and tell me what the changes are that they’re making. So what can we do?”

In a separate talk, IMERSA founder Ed Lantz outlined the various efforts to implement standards for digital dome theaters, “with an eye toward the giant screen…because we want to create a pathway between the giant-screen cinemas and the digital planetariums for transfer of content.”

The current efforts to create specifications for the fulldome and GS worlds include IMERSA’s Dome Master standard, which began a new phase at the Summit, and the Digital Immersive Giant Screen Specifications (DIGSS) process, begun in 2010 by the White Oak Institute. Both have been partially funded by the National Science Foundation.

Unlike the giant-screen world’s DIGSS process, which built on the technical specs established by the Digital Cinema Initiatives, the fulldome world has to cope with a much wider range of venues — from small portable domes to giant-screen theaters — and other factors which make a unified set of technical specs harder to put into practice. Standard planetarium business practices and cultural attitudes are also quite different from those of giant-screen theaters. For instance, many planetariums do not charge separate admission fees for their shows, and therefore do not collect attendance data. They often produce their own shows, but for those they obtain from outside producers, they usually pay flat fees instead of gate-based royalties.

The costs of producing shows for the two worlds are also quite distinct, the most expensive planetarium show budgets (over $1 million) being less than the least inexpensive giant-screen films ($2–3 million).

Despite these differences, Lantz said that there are some similarities and synergies between the two formats. Both offer immersive presentations, and both distribute pre-recorded shows. Some institutions have both a giant screen theater and a planetarium. He predicted that although they won’t completely merge, “the two communities will benefit from cross-pollination and show transfer.”

Lantz said that IMERSA’s top priority is developing and refining show exchange standards for the Dome Master format. The ideal is that producers will ultimately be able to produce shows in one format that each fulldome theater will be able to adapt automatically to its specific configuration of projectors. Currently, system providers like Evans & Sutherland or Sky-Skan create the local versions for their own shows and for those of some independent producers, a process that can be time consuming and expensive. Others, like Petersen, do it themselves, and experience the headaches he described. Lantz compared the state of the fulldome world to that of the conventional theater industry before the DCI process was begun, when dozens of different, incompatible digital projection systems were in use.

IMERSA has begun the process of refining the Dome Master spec. Interested people can learn more and participate by visiting fulldome.org.

Beyond the planetarium

Speaking the following day, Lantz described some of the commercial and non-traditional uses of dome theaters that his company, Vortex Immersion Media, has developed, including the 50-foot (15-meter) experimental dome he has set up outside his offices in Los Angeles. With its fulldome projection system, it has been used for raves, concerts, art events, and laser shows. Other events he has developed include a quad-dome setup in Los Angeles for Nike during the NBA All-star week, and an inflatable structure for Microsoft Kinect at the Super Bowl Village in Indianapolis. For many of these events, images are projected on the exterior of the dome as well as the interior.

Lantz is working on a next-generation cinema project called Axis Ventures, to  develop “enterplexes” that will incorporate dome theaters and other new media into cinema multiplexes. The concept is to build a “transmedia distribution hub” that, in addition to conventional cinema, will include “gesture interactive displays [in the lobby], games, a performing arts theater, to immerse people in a story.”

360° Roundtable

Former GSCA chairman Toby Mensforth moderated a panel discussion about the future of immersive media. He asked all panelists what innovation they saw as revolutionizing the business. Planetarium veteran and consultant Ian McLennan said he didn’t think the issues would be mostly technical, but would focus on content, “how you improve and zero in on expanding the variety of content and the professionalism in content development.” He said that social media are a “major game-changer,” beyond mere fads or trends, and represent “the next stage in human evolution.”

George Wiktor of the GW Groupwho was present as an official representative of the Themed Entertainment Association, started to agree, then stopped to send a tweet from his smartphone, which got a big laugh from the audience. He said that although many of his generation rail against the culture of social media, “we created this; we did it for our children.” Jeffrey Kirsch, director of the Reuben H. Fleet Science Center in San Diego, CA, said that a number of organizations near his museum were banding together and extensively using social media to create a better visitor experience for all their facilities. Social media will affect education, including informal education in museums, he said. He added that the possibility of collaborative content creation for domes is another important game changer.

Berend Reijnhoudt, from Omniversum in the Hague, Netherlands, said that when he installed the IMAX 15/70 film projector 27 years ago, it was the best system available, and that when the theater eventually goes digital he will again need the best system available. To people who say that a good story is just as important as high resolution, he said he wants both, and that if he could only get films with “low resolution and a good story, I would change [the IMAX theater] to a night club. I can get good stories everywhere…but a good experience in a theater with virtual reality is really important.”

McLennan said that an advantage that immersive media offer is the “shared social experience” that is dramatically different from the “isolating” home entertainment experiences.

From the audience, Ryan Wyatt, of the California Academy of the Sciences, said that another real game changer is gaming: electronic and computer games. By the time they graduate from high school, today’s kids will have spent about 10,000 hours playing video games of some sort. Their game-playing culture “will create new demands on what science centers, museums, and planetariums will deliver,” he said.

Mensforth asked the panel what the biggest challenges were. Valerie Johnson-Redrow, representing the Producers Guild of America, said it was getting the funding to make shows, a point others echoed. Kirsch said there were institutional obstacles to greater cooperation among organizations. He recalled the experience of the Museum Film Network, founded in the 1980s, which produced two giant-screen films and funded six more. He said that although it hadn’t gotten the business model right, it influenced the films made over the next decade. Wiktor said that the industry needs to find new financial models and new production models. He saw during the Summit how much more easily and quickly shows can be made today, with computer technology, than when he was making IMAX films using “giant machines with 50-person crews moving a hundred pieces of very expensive equipment.”

A lively and wide-ranging conversation continued among the panel and members of the audience, expanding to cover a number of topics, such as the nature of storytelling, the missions of institutions, and expanding the popular understanding of what planetariums do. 

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