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11 July 2011

Childhood Dome Goes Digital at Adler Planetarium

Growing up in Chicago, the Adler Planetarium had naturally been my first choice to get a star-gazing fix. The highlight of any visit, of course, was a trip to the sky theater, whose giant dome stretched far above me. Arranged in concentric circles, reclining seats surrounded the projector, raised up in the center of the room...
Adler Planetarium's Zeiss Projector. Photo courtesy of Fritz Geller-Grimm, via wikimedia commons.
Seemingly from another planet, the Zeiss projector spun and twisted to create a recreation of the night sky on the domed screen above. Zeiss projectors have been (and still are) popular with planetariums for decades, and their unusual appearance is both a curiosity and oddly reminiscent of a time when the technology was just as much a part of the show as the storyline.

So I was slightly saddened to walk into the Grainger Sky Theater and find that comforting hunk of metal and glass absent (Zeiss fans will be pleased to know that the Adler disassembled and is storing the projector for display in an upcoming exhibit). In fact, the whole theater looked different, and it really is!

The domed screen has been removed and replaced with a new invisible seam dome screen from Spitz (the Nanoseam), extending through 190 degrees of vision. The floor is now raised a foot, with dancing LED lights zipping around underneath. New, modern seats are arranged theater-style, creating a front and a back. And the trusty old projector has been replaced by 20 digital Zorro projectors from Global Immersion Ltd., partially hidden behind the screen. 
Two of the new Zorro projectors.
The technology is now whisked away, out of view, but it packs a powerful punch. No longer limited to images of the night sky as viewed from Earth, the new system allows the theater to whiz through outer space with crystal clear animations and an incredible sense of depth. To cover the whole screen, the main show control sends individual frames to each projector, whose onboard computer warps and blends the frame to create one giant seamless image on the dome. 

The theater's first show, called The Searcher, begins in the Clark Family Welcome Gallery, a pre-show area with gauzy white material stretched into odd shapes. It's almost alien-like, which makes sense given that we are about to meet an extra-terrestrial. The Searcher is actually an alien life form who is seeking out the inhabitants of his home planet, who have vacated to escape impending celestial demise. Once in the theater, The Searcher shows us the corners of the universe he has searched and the phenomena he has encountered.

The show is interesting, and the visuals stunning, but almost seemed more appropriate for an episode of The X-Files than for a scientific institution of learning. And while my personal opinion is that we're probably not alone here in the universe, I have to wonder if that is a culturally accepted basis for developing a storyline.

The Searcher is only the museum's first show in the new theater, which also has the capability to do the traditional old-school night sky projections, and also be used for special events. As museum officials explained, why not have a dinner party in the dome, with the city of Paris projected around you in high-definition clarity?

I suppose the Zeiss projector could never take me to Paris. So I'm willing to trade in a bit of nostalgia for this most impressive of upgrades, and look forward to continued deep space exploration from the Adler Planetarium.