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28 June 2011

Immersive digital cinema experiences advance at planetariums & science centers in Moscow, Chicago, Taipei, Peoria & San Diego: Interview with Martin Howe of Global Immersion

Martin Howe
Martin Howe, chief executive of UK-based Global Immersion, has many talents and more connections. I first met him at Chicago’s Adler Planetarium in July 2008 at the inaugural Fulldome Summit of IMERSA, a trade group devoted to promoting digital dome video (“fulldome”) and other immersive media formats. In a very short time, Martin, as IMERSA’s (volunteer) sponsorship chair, secured financial commitments from a number of institutions and industry suppliers to enable the young association to get off to a running start.

A convergence is taking place among the giant-screen cinema, digital video, planetarium and themed entertainment communities. Here, we look at several examples - new theaters and guest experiences at two of the world’s oldest and best-known planetariums, Chicago’s Adler Planetarium and Russia’s Moscow Planetarium - as well as the Taipei Astronomical Museum, the Peoria Riverfront Museum, and the Reuben H. Fleet Science Center in San Diego. All these projects feature Global Immersion systems.

Later this year, Martin Howe will speak about the Adler Planetarium project on the panel “Digital Dome Stories,” at TEA’s SATE ’11 Orlando conference on Experience Design, Sept 22-23. I caught up with him for an interview shortly after his return from Moscow. – Judith Rubin, IPM co-editor

Moscow Planetarium. Photo: Global Immersion
Judith Rubin: You attended the June 12 re-opening of the Moscow Planetarium. It must have been a dramatic event after having been closed 17 years for a comprehensive redesign and upgrade.

Martin Howe: It was a big day for everybody. What had been a construction site for a long time was now immaculately clean. There were lots of TV and press, happy people, and happy customers. People have worked very hard to get this planetarium back on its feet.

The event was held to coincide with Russia Day, the national holiday of the Russia Federation. I was there helping to greet VIPs, who included Russian cosmonaut Sergei Konstantinovich Krikalev and Professor Anatol Cherepashchuk, Director of the Sternberg Astronomical Institute, who was one of the main speakers.

Inside the theater at the Taipei Astronomical Museum. Photo: Global Immersion
The Planetarium had just received a new artifact, and it was sitting at the front door – a vintage Vosktok 3KA-2 space capsule that had flown unmanned 20 days before Yuri Gagarin’s historic 1961 launch. It seems that this test capsule carried a life-size mannequin nicknamed Ivan Ivanovich and a dog called Zvezdochka ("little star" in Russian), and, according to the Russian news service RIA Novosti, both the dog and the mannequin came back down safely... This historic spacecraft was recently auctioned at Sotheby’s in New York; a Russian businessman, Evgeny Yurchenko, bid nearly $2.9 million for it and generously donated it to the Planetarium.

The Planetarium is centrally located on one of the main ring roads in busy downtown Moscow not far from the Kremlin and Red Square, and next to the Moscow Zoo. This will put Russia back on the map for having a world class science center.

JR: Give us some details about the six projection systems in three theaters that Global Immersion provided and how they help to confer contemporary “world class” status on the updated Planetarium.

MH: They are by far the most comprehensive and powerful systems we’ve installed and they facilitate presenting a wide range of educational and entertaining content.

The mini-dome at the Moscow Planetarium. Photo: Global Immersion
First theater: The centerpiece venue is the Star Hall which features three digital display systems. As a 25 meter diameter planetarium, it’s said to be the biggest in Europe and can seat 364. The first integrated system is our Fidelity Bright™ and comprises 14 high resolution and brightness projectors. It is really punchy, bright, colorful and resolute, and ready to show almost anything – we even designed a custom lens to meet the client’s specifications. Also in the Star Hall is a giant-screen stereoscopic 3D theater display, and a panoramic multi-channel display that wraps around the dome periphery and works in synchronization with the new Zeiss starball projector. It’s effectively a planetarium system within a planetarium system.

The Grainger Sky Theater is the Adler's third digital dome installation since the 1990s. Photo: Adler Planetarium
Second theater: In addition to the Star Hall, the facility’s new Space Center features a 47-seat, 4D theater integrated with our proprietary Intensity® multi-dimensional cinema experience which includes a whole range of effects from ticklers and motion to snow and scent. The third theater is a 4.6 meter mini-dome for in-house production testing and show programming for younger visitors. It has a serious amount of technology packed into it. We integrated LED and 3D fulldome projection systems, plus 11 custom motion seats from our Canadian motion seating partner, D-BOX.

The Star Hall at the Moscow Planetarium. Photo: Global Immersion.
All the theaters are joined across a 10 gigabyte digital backbone and linked to 96 terabytes of storage, a 240 cpu core render farm and a remote support system. It’s a robust system with a great deal of power and resources that will let them do pretty much whatever they want to do with room to expand. In the process of shipping, it was stopped at Russian customs and reclassified as a “supercomputer.”


JR: Yours is not the only company that’s been busy with new digital video installations in the planetarium and science center market. What are the factors that are prompting so many facilities to undertake these comprehensive projects?

MH: Partly because the technology is maturing. That’s not to say it’s mature; there are still many challenges that we have to overcome. But these high performance visual systems are now affordable, especially when compared to the technologies that preceded them, either film based or opto-mechanical - and of course these digital systems are also so much more powerful and flexible.


Space Portal leading to the Grainger Sky Theater. Photo: Adler Planetarium
JR: The Adler Planetarium was one of the first to install a permanent digital dome or “fulldome” theater in the 1990s, which it upgraded 3 years ago (the Definiti Space Theater on the lower level). That makes the Global Immersion system in the 21.6 meter diameter Grainger Sky Theater (opening to the public July 8) the third generation of digital dome video projection that Adler has adopted. What particularly distinguishes this new installation?

MH: The Grainger Sky Theater at the Adler stands out on two fronts: technology and visitor experience. Both reflect the client’s vision, as it emerged and was shaped during the concept stage and the ensuing design/build process.

We call it the “world’s first digital starball” because the upgrade included removing the old opto-mechanical starball and replacing it with our Fidelity Black 8K™ system, with a 20-channel hyper-array of  Zorro® projectors from Rockwell Collins in a custom configuration with custom-built lenses. It has enough contrast and resolution to compete with the contrast and clarity of a starball while providing all the advantages of digital. We believe the Grainger Sky Theater is now the highest resolution digital theater in the world. It’s not a stereoscopic system, but it feels very 3D with the configuration and the high contrast. There is a lot more to 3D than just stereovision - I’ve written a few papers on the subject. I like to think it sets a new benchmark in immersive theater layout and also a new standard in planetarium systems.

Deep Space Adventure. Photo: Adler Planetarium
The project realizes the vision of Adler president Dr. Paul Knappenberger for a new entry experience, designed to provide a transition from the outside world. The Adler has a truly wonderful collection of artifacts and the theater is there to get visitors in the right state of mind for exploration. It gives them inspiration and information to make decisions about what to do/see in the rest of their visit. Previously, visitors would come into the main hall where they would decide what to do/see, purchase tickets and make their way around the museum. The new entry experience, Deep Space Adventure, begins for all visitors in a welcome gallery, and then continues in the Grainger Sky Theater with the show “The Searcher.” There is also an updated ticketing system.

We and the other key players on the project - architect Wights of Chicago and Pacific Construction - challenged each other to come up with a building layout that would accommodate the client’s vision and a ticketing strategy that was appropriate, looking at visitor flow, visitor numbers and audience capacity.


The 4D theater at the Moscow Planetarium has 6-axis motion seats. Photo: Global Immersion.
JR: Was that the same starball for which the Adler had sought a Federal grant to replace, and which then-presidential candidate John McCain referred to as an “overhead projector”?

MH: Yes it was. I’d like to give him a tour of the universe with it one day.


JR: Please elaborate on how Global Immersion functioned as a design partner on the project.

Taipei Astronomical Museum dome theater. Photo: Global Immersion
MH: This was no cut-and-dried installation. We were involved from the early design stages. Global Immersion creative director Rick Rothschild, who is a former Disney creative executive, joined me on this project as he often does. He brings a wide range of creativity and knowledge of show production, and he’s also very good at how to incorporate technology inside a building structure. 

We looked at other projects around the world - we even took a client team to Disney parks for a couple of days to look at rides and experiences. Rick led a number of design charrettes - with the client team, with our team, with the architectural team and with the construction team - to explore what was possible, what the building could accommodate and what the client wanted to achieve. Rick and the client were able to sketch what that would look like; then we and the architects set about engineering it and working out how to configure the building to accommodate it and fit it into the budget. We used their vision to come up with specs and functionality requirements. It was a true team design/build effort.


JR: Tell us about Taipei and Peoria.

MH: Taipei Astronomical Museum opens to the public July 7. It is a straightforward project, with our standard Fidelity Black™ display, high performing video servers and 12 Zorro projectors in a conventional layout designed primarily for astronomy presentations. It’s an existing IMAX dome theatre, 25 meter diameter, 30 degree tilt, 330 seats. The superb black level and digital functionality of the new systems enable the client to dramatically expand their range of programming.

The installations at Taipei and the Peoria Riverfront Museum are both markers of the giant-screen cinema industry transitioning from film-based systems to digital – the “convergence.” Peoria will be a flat-screen, all-digital 3D theater with stadium seating and 4K projection on a 70’ x 52’ screen. Not very many years ago the operator would most likely have selected an IMAX film projection system. In fact they’ve had to field many questions from the community regarding the decision to go digital. Their choice is an affirmation of the high quality of projection that digital systems can now provide, plus it gives the museum a lot of freedom in terms of choosing content. Construction on the theater begins this summer.

JR: The Reuben H. Fleet Science Center is a very high profile example of the convergence: a giant-screen theater expanding its options by adding digital projection. In the 1970s it was the home of the first permanent IMAX dome installation. To upgrade the theater, Fleet director Dr. Jeffrey Kirsch conducted an exhaustive shopping trip that lasted for several years and was highly visible within the visitor attractions industry.

MH: It is a very exciting project that stands to set a new quality benchmark for digital dome video. The Fleet recently upgraded the screen [Spitz Nanoseam] and engaged Global Immersion to provide fulldome technology, working with Jeff Kirsch’s very experienced team of display technologists, staff and advisors. They will work with us on every component of the system from projectors to lenses, from servers to configuration to control software. For each and every component they are looking for the best possible performance and specifications within the budget. They’ve set very clear performance metrics and we are using our CAD modeling tools to accurately predict the performance of the theater and its systems, and enable us to go quickly from the design stage to the building process. They are putting us through our paces and we are on board with that: we want it to be the best.
The "digital starball" effect in the Grainger Sky Theater. Photo: Adler Planetarium.