Planetariums: Journey to outer space

Providing a glimpse into the galaxy comes with challenges. Paul Milligan speaks to those involved in the specialist world of providing AV systems for planetariums.

Wen it comes to delivering a ‘wow’ factor, planetariums definitely hit the mark. The size, scale and wonder of the subject matter, the galaxies and outer space, require AV technology that can step up to the plate. It is no surprise that the number of players in the field of providing AV to planetariums is quite small. To build a planetarium is a sizeable investment and as a result few new planetariums are built every year. For the same reasons, we do not see new products being launched every week for this sector. However, this does not mean the vertical is not moving forward.

Thomas Gellermann, head of special projects at systems integrator Kraftwerk Living Technologies, says: “It is often areas such as entertainment or brand [experience] or even automotive where exciting innovations come from, that can also be applied in the planetarium world. The knowledge and experience gathered in these areas and projects can be used and adapted accordingly.

“We believe that planetariums have to become visitor attractions to be able to compete with other forms of entertainment and leisure activities.”

Blair Parkin, principal, director, from consultancy Teecom, thinks differently: “There is no commercial market for planetariums. Disney don’t operate planetariums, Universal don’t operate planetariums, Merlin don’t operate planetariums. They are linked to scientific discovery and teaching, so there’s not a huge commercial market for them.” It goes without saying that planetariums rely heavily on visual solutions. At present, projection is the preferred display technology. However, LED is making an impact but faces the uphill task of breaking decades of tradition.

Projection being preferred does not mean there are no choices to be made. Parkin details: “Every two years the fight changes, at the moment in projection the fight is between Christie RGB laser [not laser phosphor] projectors and Sony LCoS with LCD laser phosphor as the light source. Those are the two leading planetarium solutions for display.”

Things are changing with audio too. He adds: “A lot of planetariums are specialising their audio and using different systems. Everything from Meyer Sound’s Constellation system to a bunch of the proprietary German specialisation boxes just connected to a whole load of speakers. And then you’ve got Barco’s Iosono division which is doing a few large planetariums. It’s not like a movie house where you receive a Dolby digital print and you know the audio is going to work in advance, you will have to remix the audio for every planetarium.”

Audio, as in some other market segments, sometimes takes a back seat to video for planetariums. Rene Rodigast, business manager, acoustics, Fraunhofer Institute, says: “We have a lot of queries on our system for planetariums, but in the end, they decide to buy another laser system, and the audio is the last part of the raw equipment. This is not so nice. It’s changing a little bit but when I have a look at new planetariums and we see what kind of audio is equipped there, I can’t understand why they have installed a Dolby 5.1 system in a completely new planetarium, it’s not the system for today.

“When you sit in a planetarium the whole dome needs to be equipped with sound and only then will you have a realistic immersion in video and sound. This is not possible with conventional 5.1 audio,” says Rodigast. “When you look at cinema formats like Dolby etc. the performance is made for screens, you have a frontal perspective, with a left and right and centre, and they add some immersive coverage on top of some objects. This is not the way to use sound in planetariums, you need a free perspective in 360 degrees.”

There is some movement towards more digital audio technology. Torsten Haack, sales director, QSC EMEA, says: “We see huge improvements, stronger DSP platforms, lower latency networks, networked amplifiers with a higher channel- count and ultra-compact loudspeakers with improved mounting options leading to even more impressive results.”

The shift to more digital technology in the wider world has led Parkin to see growth in high speed audio processing DSPs. He says: “So we can use computers instead of giant racks full of hardware, which means spacialising audio has become affordable. It used to be a very exotic thing. The first systems cost USD 5.5 million to put a spacialising audio system in an auditorium, which is what it cost to build the cinema in the first place.”

With planetariums representing a significant investment on the part of the end user, they must deliver a return on investment. This means that planetariums need to be able to do more. Parkin says: “Most planetariums are multi-purpose venues, most have a wedding licence, they do jazz under the stars, they do corporate presentation work etc. A tilt screen planetarium [where the screen is tilted at an angle] is basically an amphitheatre. So, it’s a really good presentation environment.”

Does this flexibility add more work for an integrator? Parkin explains: “For our team at Teecom we don’t just design the technology, we design the packaging of the planetarium, we work with the architects because we’ve done so many over the last three decades. We help with the designs, we draw the sightlines, the seating, the layouts, the bowls, the control room, the equipment, the screen, and then the architect packages that into the building.”

Gellerman says Kraftwerk LT specifically looks for technology that can add flexibility: “All technology that allows for the versatility and flexibility of planetarium venues that is stage technology, digital projection, rotating auditoriums and much more along with uses outside the main dome - open up the possibility to use the venue in a flexible way and not just as a planetarium.”

When we think of planetariums we think of giant 200-seater buildings, but we have also seen the growth of smaller dome structures recently, which don’t incur the same levels of cost. Is it possible to deliver planetariums ‘on a budget’?

The falling cost of technology is making it more possible. Parkin recalls working on one project in America which opened in 2000: “[It included] USD 10 million worth of Silicon Graphics onyx supercomputers to map the galaxy and drive the displays, 10 years later we replaced them with something that was 10 times more powerful and cost USD 100,000. More and more software is being written to allow us to visualise science in real time. These days, even the highest performance computing platform is going to be under USD 100,000 and it can visualise everything from CT scans of humans, through to data sets from deep space probes.”

Audio technology can be scaled down to, save more costs according to Haack. He says: “The Q-Sys cores have scaled down from big enterprise cores to the Core110f [or the cinema version Core110c] making this technology available even for smaller venues without sacrificing connectivity or flexibility.”

So where are planetariums headed in the next decade? Parkin says: “A huge amount of content is real time, it’s not a pre-recorded show, but generated in real time by computers. That is where planetariums are going. It is essentially VR, there are a number of huge data sets of the universe, of the solar system, of the oceans etc."

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