by Judith Rubin
On March 15, the Science Museum of Virginia in Richmond re-opened its dome theater to the public, outfitted with a new Evans & Sutherland Digistar 5 8K system. The renovation of this 243-seat theater with unidirectional seating in a tilted, 23-m dome also includes a new Spitz NanoSeam dome. The museum has named it, simply, “The Dome.”
Attendance numbers are up dramatically, and The Dome is making the most of its new versatility. Its cinematic premiere, the fulldome version of Great White Shark, has done well, and its “cosmic expeditions” format, which pairs a fulldome science show with a topical, real-time live astronomy presentation, is doing equally well, according to Jim Peck, director, Technology and Innovation at the Science Museum of Virginia.
Certainly the eyes of the museum and planetarium community will be on this 8K digital transformation of a dome that formerly emphasized IMAX films. E&S promotes the playback qualities of this D5 8K package as meeting and even exceeding what 15/70 film dome projection can do. “We knew we had a challenge to meet, and this was our opportunity to do it—not just to replace IMAX in a dome, but to provide a system that could do all kinds of things, and do them easily,” says Dennis Elkins, Director of Advanced Displays at E&S.
The Museum’s new D5 uses five Christie 4K projectors, selected for resolution, brightness and 120Hz active stereo 3D. The system’s real-time astronomy features display natively in 8K and include a full, regularly updated library of digital starfields, planets, comets, moons, nebulae, etc. For the original E&S press release with the specifications, see www.es.com/News/2013/2013-09-16.html.
This article appeared originally in the June 2014 issue of The Planetarian, published by the International Planetarium Society, and is reprinted here with permission.
Interview with Jim Peck, director, Technology and Innovation, Science Museum of Virginia
Our IMAX 15/70 film projector and our Digistar II were both well-worn and we saw that it was time to move forward with some new systems. We couldn’t deliver the kinds of programming we wanted to give our visitors. We had dialed back our astronomy shows to a live night sky program about once a month.
How did you re-ignite your astronomy offerings?
We were shopping for an open kind of system, thinking of our dome as a canvas that wasn’t necessarily for any one thing. The Digistar 5 appealed to us as having that kind of versatility. Initially, we had not planned to do much astronomical content in The Dome.
We had thought we would focus on pre-rendered films, and offer a live star show about once a week, but the D5 has such robust astronomy features that we changed our plans and brought in Justin, as a specialist with content and technical expertise, to produce live astronomy shows.
We quickly realized that the astronomy was more popular than we’d foreseen, and that we had a great presenter who knew how to make the most of it. People wanted more. Live presentations now follow just about every pre-rendered show that runs in The Dome. In just the first six weeks, this programming attracted a significant following, with 30-40 people sticking around to ask Justin questions after each show. He updates the content weekly to reflect current events. As an example, when the Kepler Space Telescope recently discovered the new, Earth-like planet in the habitable zone of another star, NASA held its press conference at 2 p.m., and we had it in our show at 3 p.m. The same day. It’s the perfect formula of the right system and the right talent.
How are you dividing up the schedule between giant screen movies and astronomy presentations?
Cosmic expeditions now take up about half of the public schedule in The Dome -competing successfully with screenings of Great White Shark. A cosmic expedition is a 30-minute fulldome show that has space science content – such as Wildest Weather in the Solar System – and is followed by a 20-minute, live presentation.
We have abundant walk-in traffic in addition to our school groups: family after family coming in, going into The Dome and watching shows. Our numbers are up 30%-40% over last year in general, and over the spring break period, they were double last year’s.
Tell us about your marketing phraseology – calling the theater The Dome, and the astronomy shows “cosmic expeditions.”
It’s helped frame where we are now compared to where we were before the renovation – and it’s selling tickets. What we are now offering is so different from what people grew up with here, and descriptive terms like “cosmic expedition” help convey that. We’re doing new things and we needed new, evocative words.
We struggled with naming the theater. “The Dome” has caught on with the press and the public, and it is evocative of a special place where any number of amazing and unique things could happen. It let us distinguish ourselves in the marketplace. Our mission is inspiration—and we find that we are now able to exceed our guests’ expectations.
How does Great White Shark look on the new system?
As we had hoped, the D5 has surpassed the visual impact of our IMAX projector. Any differences are improvements. The picture is impressively bright and crisp, with great contrast. Attendance for this show is very good, and weekend screenings are almost full. We love Great White Shark on the D5, and so does our audience.
Projecting it is a streamlined operation – the auto-align and auto-blend features keep the image looking great. The fulldome digital transfer created by E&S is amazing, and it fills a larger portion of the dome than the film version could. When we repaneled the dome, we covered up the cut out for the old projection booth in the back of the theater to make the most of this.
Do you plan to run shows at high frame rates and in stereoscopic 3D?
The D5 is capable of frame rates up to 60 fps and this high refresh rate can be applied for real time content as well as playback. The same is true for stereo 3D, which runs at 120 fps (60 fps per eye using active stereo). We aren’t using either of those for public shows yet, although we have done several demos and the quality is astounding.
We are still thinking about when and how to roll it out to the public. For now, we plan to focus on the live presentations that are proving so successful, and build from there.
What other plans do you have for making the most of The Dome’s new versatility?
We are experimenting with other content possibilities. For our clients doing corporate events, we have started to offer them a fulldome show and live content—and they’re waiting in line to do it now. We are selling people on the truly unique qualities of what they can do in The Dome. The museum has access to an enormous amount of content and that now includes the D5 library, so tie-ins with exhibits are also in our future. We opened a new gallery last summer, and will open another next summer and the summer following. The Dome renovation is part of a new, strategic master plan and a capital campaign which officially commenced in early 2012.
We are actively raising funds and to date we have raised $38M of the $60M goal. The success of the new theater has absolutely helped develop private and public support and momentum. We plan to continue to offer new and innovative experiences in The Dome and the entire museum that will excite our visitors and build a loyal audience of repeat visitors.
Interview with Justin Bartel, immersive experience specialist, Science Museum of Virginia
While growing up in North Newton, Kansas, Justin Bartel made regular trips to the nearby city of Hutchinson to visit the Kansas Cosmosphere and Space Center and its Justice Planetarium. This fostered an interest in astronomy and space exploration that eventually led him to attend the University of Arizona, with summers spent back at the Cosmosphere working with students attending their Future Astronaut Training Program summer camps.
After graduating with a bachelor’s of science degree in astronomy in 2005, Justin once again returned to the Cosmosphere to assist with astronomy education programs and operate the planetarium’s Spitz 512 projector. In 2007, Justin moved to a position at Exploration Place in Wichita, Kansas, and was introduced to the digital planetarium in the form of E&S’s Digistar 3. Here he joined an experienced staff and learned how to operate, maintain, and produce fulldome content in the theater where Digistar 3 had premiered to the world five years earlier.
After departing Exploration Place, Justin pursued opportunities in science education in Boulder, Colorado and Orlando, Florida before joining the Science Museum of Virginia in late 2013. In the first three months of 2014, he has assisted with the opening of a new fulldome theater at the museum’s satellite campus in Danville, Virginia, and the re-opening of The Dome.
What makes a good live presentation?
It’s more than reading headlines or reciting a script—it starts with having a story to tell and then finding your reason to tell it. I’m always looking to add some interesting fact visitors may overlook on their own, or to make connections between multiple topics.
Once I’m hooked on a story it becomes a lot easier to get other people interested, and it leads more naturally to visitors getting involved in the presentation by answering my questions and asking questions of their own.
Why are live presentations important and what makes an audience respond to them?
I think a lot of people are naturally curious about space, but because astronomy includes so many topics that are so far removed from our everyday lives, both literally and figuratively, it helps to have a live presenter to serve as a guide. The presenter also helps the audience get more out of a fulldome show by being available to answer questions that come up, and to share relevant new information.
Supplementing these productions with live presentations is a way to keep our visitors informed about the latest discoveries, and I think they really appreciate that. I can share the cool stuff that audiences care about: the story of the universe, traveling across the solar system, traveling outside the galaxy, breaking news of the cosmos.
How do you like working with the new system?
It’s fast and intuitive, and a huge leap from the D3 that I worked with previously. The user interface has been redesigned, and I was able to hit the ground running with it.
In addition to high resolution and brightness, it has great flexibility and a rich library of assets that is regularly updated and easy to access. It lets you move freely from topic to topic: what you want, when you want, and easily responding to audience requests.
I like to do something a little different for every show, depending on current events. Someone in the audience may ask to go to a favorite planet, or have questions concerning something that wasn’t covered in the canned show, and D5 allows me to do this on the fly. To paraphrase what my boss Richard Conti (CEO and chief Wonder Officer, Science Museum of Virginia) said: “I’m hard to please and the Digistar 5 has exceeded my expectations.”
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