by Judith Rubin
Somewhere in the world, on a plane, in an airport, paying a business call or from his UK office, Martin Howe, VP of Global Immersion, is thinking about your programming.
If you attend a meeting with Martin, you may have gone in thinking about projection systems. But he wants you to come away pondering the digital strategy for your entire venue. Only then will he feel he’s been doing his job. “Don’t think of it as a theater. That’s not a good place to start. The question is not, ‘What will this digital theater do for me?’ It’s ‘How will this digital theater function as the hub of my facility infrastructure and guest experience?’ We’re not talking about ‘movie theaters’ but rather environments that include movie theater capability.”
It is in the digital dome (fulldome) sector – which is mostly the planetarium sector – that Global Immersion has carved out its biggest niche with more than 40 digital planetarium installations, and while remaining faithful to that market it’s been frying other digital fish too, making its mark quickly in giant screen. A short list of flagship projects includes the Morrison Planetarium at the California Academy of Sciences (San Francisco), Adler Planetarium (Chicago), Moscow Planetarium, Peoria Riverfront Museum (Peoria, Illinois), Reuben H. Fleet Science Center (San Diego) and the JetBlue Sky Theater at New York’s Cradle of Aviation Museum.
Engineer-turned-entrepreneur Howe started his career in the 1980s with 14 years of learning the ropes at Electrosonic, followed by stints at Barco and SEOS before leading a management buyout that formed Global Immersion in 2007. He’s found his way back to Electrosonic as the result of that company’s December 2012 acquisition of Global Immersion.
Before getting into the acquisition story, we’ll look a little more at the industry landscape that is its context.
Amid variety, the need for standards
According to Howe, as operators, designers and producers explore and begin to make the most of their new digital powers, individual institutions and venues will find compelling new ways to differentiate themselves via unique content and programming that builds brands, fulfills missions, bonds with local communities and earns revenue. They’ll fuel an explosion of variety.
Conversely, the technology powers the kind of widespread content distribution that lets many more theaters get a crack at showing the latest blockbuster. This recently happened with the premiere of The Hobbit, spread out through a wide range of commercial and institutional venues and exhibition formats and frame rates (from a variety of providers, including Global Immersion): digital and film, flatscreen and dome, 2D and stereoscopic 3D, 24 fps and 48 fps.
Consistent exhibition standards are important to robustly fulfill this vision, as are resourceful providers and dialog between the various industry sectors, especially planetariums, giant screen cinema and themed entertainment. Global Immersion’s activity in this arena includes Howe’s involvement with the DIGSS initiative (Digital Immersive Giant Screen Specs) as chair of the task force within GSCA (Giant Screen Cinema Association), participation in IMERSA (Immersive Media, Entertainment, Research & Arts) and in IPS (International Planetarium Society), and expanding the company’s professional scope through the acquisition by Electrosonic.
Howe will speak about DIGSS at the IMERSA Fulldome Summit in Denver this February, and the company will also take up a visible position at the GSCA Film Expo and Digital Cinema Symposium in Galveston, Texas this March.
Distribution economics and the 400 domes
“What do we need from producers right now?” says Howe. “Great content. What do producers need? A healthy distribution network. The economics of great content are driven by the number of screens a show can be played on. A multiformat distribution model helps economies of scale; investors in production can be confident that there is a market to sell to.”
Priming a show for maximum digital distribution, therefore, calls for an umbrella of standards, specifications and best practices, reaching from domes to flat screens. There are the digital dome (fulldome) planetariums in all their various sizes and tilts – a network where digital conversion has spread quickly since the late 1990s. There are the giant domes in science centers, where digital conversion is just getting started. And there are the 2D and 3D digital flat screens in many museums, existing and new.
Those flat screens have been the primary distribution circuit for years in the special venue world, but the sleeping giant of fulldome may now flip the model on its head.
Moreover, the digital dome shows signs of entering the mainstream and dramatically transforming the planetarium sector. Two recent signs: the Jackson Hole Wildlife Film Festival & Symposium’s incorporation of fulldome presentations in its screenings and competitions (the 2012 JHWFF Science Media Awards fulldome winner was Undiscovered Worlds: The Search Beyond our Sun by the Charles Hayden Planetarium at the Museum of Science, Boston); and the 2013 Sundance Film Festival screened the fulldome production CORAL: Rekindling Venus, directed by Lynette Wallworth and produced by John Maynard.
The size of the fulldome network – at this point estimated to be well over 1,000 domes worldwide – is impressive, but the market is segmented. Realistically, Howe estimates that an enterprising producer can aim for a maximum of some 400 domes in the 60-foot-diameter-and-smaller category; enough to be an economic and strategic game-changer and empower the dome community. All this facilitates cross-platforming so that existing assets can be repurposed and new productions designed with multiple formats in mind from the start.
The upward spiral
Fulldome specifications, known as Dome Masters, are already in place and practice, enabling virtually any fulldome playback show to be distributed to virtually any fulldome theater, although the range of theater configurations complicates the task. DIGSS was launched in 2010 to pick up where Dome Masters leave off and bridge the gap for large format film domes and giant flat screen theaters in museums that are converting to or adding digital systems. “DIGSS will help speed up the migration to digital, and make it quicker and less expensive to get content out there and earning a return,” says Howe. “As digital formats continue to take hold throughout the industry, this will open the market significantly.” For conventional digital flat screens, there is the already well-established DCI (Digital Cinema Initiative) – but there are some gaps to fill when it comes to giant screens, especially in regard to aspect ratios.
The standards and specs should also help maintain quality across market sectors. Giant screen theaters have taken longer to get to the stage of digital conversion because of the need to match the quality of the specialty film systems they would be augmenting or replacing. “They want to maintain their high standards in the digital age,” says Howe.
Appreciating the scope of the dome market is changing the way media producers and distributors approach their projects. “The dome is the biggest frame, as well as the biggest potential market,” Howe says. “It doesn’t mean everything has to be produced for the dome, but a producer should have it in mind. There are levels of complexity depending on whether a show is live action or CGI – and in terms of camera geometry, the capture process doesn’t readily translate between the two. That’s a chapter being written now in the real world of the industry.”
The situation looks favorable for dome theater operators, and Howe urges them to make the most of it. “Planetariums are facing revenue opportunities they have never had before,” he says. “They are in a position to build more lucrative business models – to enjoy better attendance, more exhibition options and more revenue.” Enough, he indicates, to change the equation of a facility: to sustain regular upgrades – for while the technology is considered to have reached a stage of maturity, it will continue to evolve – and to support bigger production budgets, better shows and healthy marketing campaigns on a par with their giant screen cousins.
“The giant screen market is used to having $5-7 million for a show, but in general planetariums are accustomed to thinking much smaller,” explains Howe. “For those wanting to broaden their scope beyond conventional astronomy presentations, production budgets need to go up. The strategy that will support that is higher ticket prices plus a marketing approach more akin to a giant screen theater than a planetarium. This will foster an increase in money available across all sectors and the gate that is received there. If some of that money is re-injected into the production world, the quality of shows will go up and growth will take an upward spiral.”
The above model refers to playback or “pre-rendered” fulldome shows, not the real-time dome shows that navigate digital datasets from sources such as NASA and NOAA. (These image generators are part of the capability of virtually all fulldome systems, and a factor in the segmentation of the market.) “The story is a little different for live data presentations,” Howe says, “and will probably take a different trajectory – which is a whole other subject for another day.”
Giant Screen and GSX™
The suppliers’ role in the upward spiral is to build equipment that complies with the standards and specs, and anticipates future advances. Now that Global Immersion is part of Electrosonic, the combined group has combined strengths to further this goal. “We want to continue to lead the market in technology and innovation,” says Howe. “We have more resources to do that now. On our own, Global Immersion focused on the mid- to high-end, but as part of a larger group, we should be able to bring innovation to smaller screens now as well. This year, you will see us broadening our range of products. Something unique that we bring to the mix is our experience in producing and distributing media, borne of serving planetarium customers who need a wide range of services.”
Global Immersion’s existing strong base in the planetarium sector appealed to Electrosonic and provided an immediate market expansion – but equally attractive was its growing presence in the worldwide giant screen markets and the product developed to serve that niche, the GSX system. Howe says, “GSX is a range of digital, high performance giant screen theater products for flat screen and domes that utilize the brightest, high-resolution cinema grade projectors to replace large format film. It is designed to go head-to-head with quality film systems and outperform them; to deliver the highest performance in all of the areas that we care to measure that we think are important: such as brightness, resolution, frame rate, screen size. Today GSX uses 4K resolution projectors, and all GSX systems are designed to be DIGSS compliant.”
Describing specific GSX installations, Howe elaborates, “The Fleet installation, in a 2D giant dome, has 4 projectors and is 3D-upgradable; Peoria is a 70’ x 52’ giant flat screen 3D system with 2 projectors. Both are capable of high frame rates up to 60 frames per second, and are simpler to operate than film systems. In Peoria, for instance, the shows are pre-loaded and the system will auto-configure to match the show it has been scheduled to play. At the push of a button it can go from 2D to 3D, 1.85:1 to 4:3 and from 24 fps to 48 fps, in 20 seconds or less. These GSX systems also integrate all the other capabilities that used to be acquired as separate extras – connecting a laptop to display PowerPoint slides, load the Internet, stream a satellite feed or even run non-DCI movies. They’re designed with a roadmap for upgrading to laser projection when it becomes available in the future.”
Creating industry-wide standards and specs to unite such a wide range of theater configurations will continue to be a challenge. “DIGSS provides a way to go forward,” notes Howe. “DCI is established and people know how to work with it, but it doesn’t cover other aspect ratios such as 4:3, nor does it cover domes. Fortunately the fulldome community and now the giant screen community have provided standards and best practices that DIGSS can adopt. The specs being drawn up in DIGSS 1.1 are targeted to be ahead of the market.”
Entertainment, novelty and spectacle
The Global Immersion-Electrosonic synergy will also flow into the entertainment markets where Electrosonic has become well-established over the decades, with the leading theme park and attraction operators as clients and a long line of World Expo pavilions. As a supplier to media-based experiences in giant-screen, custom-dome and curved-screen attractions, Electrosonic’s projects include the SECU Daily Planet at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences, the Typhoon Theatre at Resorts World Sentosa, the Information & Communications Pavilion at Shanghai Expo 2010, and the 4D experience “Beyond All Boundaries” at the Solomon Victory Theater at the National World War II Museum in New Orleans.
Novelty and spectacle have always been part of the appeal of specialty cinema, whether Cinerama, a giant movie dome, a one-off surround theater at a world’s fair or a curved-screen 3D experience. Eventually some specialty formats become standardized and appear in multiple venues; this part of the cycle engenders creative and commercial opportunities, but it also leads to the novelty wearing off, and then the onus falls on content. As the giant screen theater has gone from novel to familiar, what has lately brought people flocking back into those theaters is blockbuster content. As digital technology becomes omnipresent and transparent, the opportunity arises to look past technology, and deliver novelty again and again, through content and guest experience.
That brings us back to Martin Howe’s digital strategy planning vision, and his thoughts about your programming. “Think about how a theater fits strategically within the whole institution; as a key hub in the whole business model. Consider whether the media in your theater should be related to the other media across the institution. Should it be linked to other infrastructure? That could include interactives, ticketing, visitor recognition and other technology in your exhibit spaces and operations, inside and outside the building. All that will help you decide what kind of programming you want. ”
Howe continues, “One digital asset can join up with other digital assets, and your digital strategy can unify the whole space. At the Adler and in Moscow, Global Immersion helped design and build the backbone of the museum even to the extent of integrating telescopes with digital cameras that can send their images to any theater in the building. Another part of the strategy: How will you brand, position and market your facility’s new persona? These are big questions to answer, but they are worth answering. They lead to viable new business models and incredible, new immersive guest experiences.” • • •
[box] FACTS ABOUT ELECTROSONIC • Operates from 14 offices globally with locations in the USA, the UK, Sweden, China and the United Arab Emirates. • Offers some of the market’s most extensive managed services, with remote monitoring and management capabilities. • Offers one of the most comprehensive projector lamp replacement programs in the market • Has completed over 50 World Expo projects from Expo’67 Montreal to Expo 2010 Shanghai • Was established in 1964 and is privately owned • Is one of the largest AV systems integration companies in the world • Has a highly qualified engineering department with over 140 people • Has a service solutions business with over 180 dedicated staff • Has completed projects in over 60 locations worldwide • Installed the world’s biggest video wall with 850 monitors at Expo ’92 Seville, Spain • Its Los Angeles office exterior is a castle[/box]
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