Cosm intent on creating a shared reality

A new series of domed venues wants to change how we enjoy a traditional planetarium experience, starting with using LED instead of projection. Paul Milligan spoke with Devin Poolman, the CTO of the company behind the idea.

The more things change, the more they stay the same is the old adage. And you could certainly say that about planetariums. The technology has been around since the turn of the last century, during a time of incredible technology progress, but is still drawing crowds to this day. Why 100+ years on, have planetariums achieved such lasting popularity? “They are the original immersive experience,” says Devin Poolman, chief product and technology officer, Cosm.

“It’s trying to bring the elements of a digital experience into a physical world, trying to trick an audience and transport them into another world. Fundamentally it’s the human desire to experience new things, it's why we travel, it's why we get together in groups to do things. Planetariums provide that opportunity to bring an audience together, take them on a trip together and experience something you can't do in your house.”


Planetariums have always relied on projection technology, in fact the Carl Zeiss optical company was involved in the design of some of the very first ones ever constructed, but we may finally see that dominance end, thanks to Devin Poolman and Cosm. In Spring 2024, Cosm will open the first in a series of new immersive entertainment venues in Los Angeles and will use Cosm’s domed and compound curved LED technology, in a concept it is calling Shared Reality.

The idea is to make it more of a communal experience says Poolman, to not have people stuck in seats the whole time, and to be able to move around the venue with a drink in your hand surrounded by your friends. The more than 6,000 sq m venue will be able to handle up to 2,000 people at once. To further push the boundaries, the content will not be limited to that you would expect from a traditional planetarium ie stargazing at the night sky etc. Cosm has already struck deals with the NBA and UFC to stream live sports content to the venue and is in the process of signing up other content partners. One of those is Planetary Collective, the creators of space films Overview and Planetary, who will release Orbital, a new space exploration Shared Reality experience driven by Cosm’s CX System.

The concept of Shared Reality is only achievable he says because of the move away from projection. “In a projection theatre experience you are limited by brightness when somebody opens the door in the back of the theatre, or pulls out their iPhone, which can ruin the experience for a viewer. Because form follows function, that inherently leads to a traditional theatre style experience i.e. dark rooms, people sitting in their seat being quiet, looking forward. Watching with this technology driving 10 times the brightness of what you’d have from a digital cinema experience, and being completely surrounded, is recreating the same lighting conditions as if you were there at an NBA game etc. We’ve really pushed our venues to follow Shared Reality. We want it to be more like the club section of the newest arenas or stadiums being built, so you have that comfort level, you can order food or drinks on your phone and get them delivered to your seat, all together in a comfortable atmosphere, not in a dark, dim theatre.”

Because of the size of the dome, and its all-encompassing curved LEDs surrounding those inside, stretching up to the peak of the dome 16m high, it’s going to feel like you are part of the sporting (or entertainment) experience says Poolman. “This is why we’re so excited about this. You can be front row of a Circque du Soleil show, with a perspective you can’t get as a paying customer, or by the Octagon of a UFC fight peering into the arena.” Using LED instead of projection can help Cosm tackle specific technical challenges that traditional planetariums have never been able to solve explains Poolman.

“Orbital is a great example because of the unique challenges of delivering dark blacks and bright stars. The industry has always done the best it can with projection technology. Things like cross bounce on a dome screen lead to washed out images and limit the amount of brightness you can ultimately project. This is why LED has really been the holy grail for conquering the challenge of really providing a totally different level of reality to planetarium astronomy content.”

Whenever the benefits of LED were sold in the past, it was always the brightness that was prioritised by manufacturers, then it was the colour. We are now in a phase where the black levels of LED are crucial, and this is very much the case for Cosm says Poolman.  “It’s so important in the planetary space. The foundational technology that our team has brought to this endeavor, in terms of driving planetarium experiences, is really one of the most difficult technical tests for an LED display. In the Planetarium sense you need to be perfectly black and extremely bright, and then you also need to have just the slightest gray of the Milky Way for example, it needs to be very subtle. These are things that are very hard technically with LED, that our team has really been able to pioneer with our CX software, we can control every single pixel on that LED display, and having our own control over how that LED is activated." 

Poolman said he could not discuss who was supplying the LED tiles for the Cosm sites, only that he was “working with partners on the manufacturing supply of the LEDs, but to our design”.

Any concerns about a lag when live streaming content to such a giant canvas are unfounded adds Poolman: “Because of our history of working on live immersive shooting (originally to VR headsets), we can now capture up to 8K and live stream it into the dome in under five seconds of latency.” The plan is that the LA site opens in Q2 2024, with Dallas “a little bit beyond that”.

Are there plans to take this concept further afield? Poolman says the company is actively exploring additional locations and hopes to have some announcements of “a couple more venues” in the coming months. “We’ve been very actively looking at what we say is venues 3 through to 10, the plan 100% is not just scaling across the US, but also thinking globally. There are markets like Middle East and Asia and Europe that are extremely interesting. Aside from the fact that we think this experience translates globally, we’re also working with content partners who have global audiences who see opportunities to reach and transport the experience of being at a [New York] Knicks or [Los Angeles] Lakers basketball game, or a UFC fight, and bring that all the way around the world to fans.”

Finally, has the hype around The Sphere in Las Vegas, which is covered in LED both inside and out, distracted from what Poolman and Cosm are trying to do in nearby LA? “We love the focus and attention and investment they’re putting into the giant screen. I’m excited about experiencing that myself, but it’s a very fundamentally different experience than what we’re delivering. But it is great for everybody in the industry."

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