Out of this world: A look at the Planetarium market

KLT_ScienceDome_(c)KraftwerkLT (11)
Pic credit: © experimenta

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

It’s perhaps no surprise that the number of players in the field of providing AV to planetariums, either in supplying specialist products or the design/installation side is quite small.  To build one is a sizeable investment, so as a result we only see very few new planetariums every year. For the same reasons we also don’t see new products being launched every week for this sector. 

California Academy of Sciences Morrison Planetarium 2
Pic credit: ©R.Brad Knipstein

But that doesn’t mean it’s not moving forward, albeit at its own pace. So where are the innovations coming from right now? “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,” says Thomas Gellermann, head of special projects at systems integrator Kraftwerk Living Technologies. “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 consultants Teecom takes a different viewpoint; “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.”

As we reported in Inavate April, Kraftwerk LT is developing its own hybrid dome solution, but Gellermann also see another familiar product making an impact in this market; “We  see LED entering the dome sector and with this also the planetarium market. High brightness, intense colours and increased contrast can be provided, creating an image quality that is unmatched.”

LED has certainly made a huge impact in the rest of the proAV world, so its maybe no surprise that its been mentioned here, although it will have to break decades of tradition for it to replace what is still a very heavily dominated projection segment. When we talk about AV in planetariums, aside from media servers from the likes of 7thsense, AV Stumpfl, and (planetarium specialists) Evans and Sutherland, who are all active in this segment, it’s really a speaker/projector combination we are talking about. Are we seeing any movement in that respect? “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 planetariums solutions for display,” says Parkin.

NSS Creative project for Brunel University
pic credit: NSS Creative project for Brunel University

Things are changing with audio too he adds, “A lot of planetariums are specialising their audio and using different systems.  Everything from Meyer’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 Isono 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 and its often the case here, says Rene Rodigast, business manager, acoustics, Fraunhofer Institute. “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 Dolby 5.1 system in a completely new planetarium, it’s not the system for today.” That isn’t to say there isn’t some movement towards more digital audio technology says Torsten Haack, sales director, stadium, theme park & maritime business, EMEA, QSC. “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, “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 €5m to put a spacialising audio system in an auditorium, which is what it cost to build the cinema in the first place.”

Venues are being designed in greater numbers than ever before to be multi-purpose, so are planetariums seeing this trend too? Do they now have to be a cinema, a planetarium and a stage for presentations? “Most planetariums are multi-purpose venues, most have a wedding licence, they do jazz under the stars, they do corporate presentation work etc.” says Parkin. “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? Its always been like that adds Parkin. “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. This opens up the possibility to use the venue in a flexible way and not just as a planetarium.”

Things are getting better in this regard i.e. helping venues do more with the technology they have says QSC’s Haack. “When the first (bigger) planetariums popped up in Central Europe about 7 or 8 years ago, the first question was always ‘which AV formats can I work with?’, people asked for options from just connecting one microphone to the system up to having an entire classical orchestra performing in the dome for which they wanted to use the audio set-up as sound enhancement/reverberation tool. Today it’s not a question of compromise anymore. It’s rather a question of the platform I choose and the early assessments.”

Another term often repeated in the proAV world at the moment is immersive. Planetariums were immersive before we even called it that, but with such a strong emphasis on the video over the audio, can it really be an immersive experience without the audio to match? “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.” Kraftwerk’s Gellermann takes a more rounded approach to achieving a fully immersive experience; “It is the overall integration and interplay between the technologies that create immersion. But yes, audio and video play a crucial and highly important role in this equation. Another aspect often forgotten in the technical discussion is content and story.”

One area that seems impervious to change is that no two planetariums are ever the same, which has a few knock-on effects; it makes standardisation almost impossible and deters many outsiders from entering the market. “Planetariums have been built originally to have an optical instrument in them, when you refit them digitally you don't have any predictability for sound or vision’” says Parkin. “We can bang on about standards but the reality is there are approximately 400 large planetariums in the world and they're all physically different as a building because they’ve been built over many years.”

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. So is it possible to install a planetariums/dome ‘on a budget’? The falling cost of technology is making it more possible says Parkin, he recalls working on one project in America which opened in 2000 which included “$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 $100,000. More and more software is being written to allow us to visualise science in in real time. These days, even the highest-performance computing platform is going to be under $100,000. And they can visualise everything from CT scans of humans, through to data sets from deep space probes.” Audio technology can be scaled down to, saving more costs says Haack; “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? “A huge amount of content is real time, its not a pre-recorded show, but generated in real time by computers. That is where planetariums are going,” says Parkin “It is essentially VR, there are a number of huge data sets of the universe, of the solar system, of the oceans etc.”