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AV Travels The Universe

A California planetarium modernizes its technology to bring viewers into a fully dimensional universe of video and sound.

CHALLENGE: Redesign a traditional planetarium theater with in-the-round seating and an optomechanical projector for digital video presentations with a front-to-back viewing perspective and 5.1 surround sound.

SOLUTION: Gut and rebuild the interior of the space with one- way seating, a full-dome 3D digital video projection system, and a surround sound speaker system to immerse viewers in a theatrical experience.

AS ENTERTAINMENT technology evolves, planetariums — once the outposts for a brave new world of space discovery — have had to modernize their aging AV capabilities and bring their audiences into the digital era.

Gladwin Planetarium, a key attraction at the popular Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History, recently came to terms with this situation. With the help of Camarillo, CA-based AV systems integrator Delicate Productions, the staff came up with a series of imaginative solutions to completely reinvent the facility as a coherent immersive experience capable of entertaining and educating as a fully three-dimensional experience.

Unlike traditional plaster-domed planetariums built as separate structures, the Gladwin Planetarium was built in 1957 as a part of the existing structure with a large viewing space consisting of a square room with a fiberglass dome suspended by steel wire.

“We used to run shows that most people think of as the classic planetarium, with the optomechanical projector that looks like a mechanical ant, and can project the stars at any time of day, anyplace in the world,” says Krissie Cook, the museum's astronomy programs coordinator. “And with in-the-round seating, because every part of the sky is up there from one end of the dome to the other, every seat was a problem in terms of what you could see or hear.”

After selecting a projection system, audio system, and a new layout for the main viewing area, the Gladwin AV project started in earnest during the first three months of 2005. The room was gutted, and in-the-round seating was replaced by traditional proscenium theater seating with different local suppliers providing the seating, refurbishing the room, and installing a new fiberglass dome, which is suspended by steel cables and was repainted after Cook disassembled the original seating herself — one seat at a time.

The Planetarium was configured like a movie theater, but faces upward and onto a domed projection surface to create a truly immersive theatrical experience for visitors. “The new Digistar 3 projection system is for full-dome digital video, and most of the programs have been designed to have a 'front,' so for something like titles, there has to be a front and the seats had to face that direction,” Cook explains.

To make the planetarium's vision a reality, Delicate Productions installed a Digistar 3 SP Full-Dome Projection System and accompanying surround audio system.

“With the Digistar system, we can create a star field and put stars up, but the stars aren't created by passing light through a pinhole with mirrors like the original system,” Cook says. “Now, all of the stars exist in a three-coordinate database that gives the effect of a dimensional universe, so we can show the star field at any time, and also shift to the other side of the galaxy. You can actually see the positions of the stars changing because they're not just points of light.”

The Evans & Sutherland Digistar 3 SP (single projector) system is equipped with a Christie Digital 1,500 lumens DLP projector. The planetarium chose the system because of its programming, support, flexible control, and the fact that it provided everything it needed in a single package, along with audio and video processing that can be easily controlled from different locations. “We had competing bids from others that were all pretty close in terms of cost, but we felt this system had exactly what we needed,” Cook says.

With the new system, Cook can project anything from stars to images, videos, or literally anything that can be displayed digitally. Some are pre-programmed shows on video rendered for a full-dome format with compensation for image distortion that results from the image being projected onto the curved surface of the dome already figured in. The staff can also do live shows that project stars taken from the facility's comprehensive database of three-coordinate images, which allow viewers to see the stars from any point in a fully dimensional universe.

All of this can be controlled in real time from a console equipped with Windows and a GUI interface, where the user can set up control parameters based on the program being projected. For added convenience, there's also a Button Box for the Digistar 3 system that includes a Hewlett-Packard PDA (HPI-Pack) with the GUI, which provides wireless control of the parameters from the unit.

To enhance the immersive quality of the projection system, all of its programs are mixed for 5.1 surround sound. The planetarium's new audio system had to provide an authentic surround experience, a considerable challenge with the large space's domed roof, which added reflections to the sound.

To accomplish this, Delicate had to start from square one. The original speakers were mounted in the middle of the room with the old projector as a mono system, so they all had to be removed and replaced as part of the upgrade. The new speakers — five Martin Audio EM Series 15s and one EM 20 subwoofer — are set up as a traditional left, right, center, left rear, right rear, and sub 5.1 surround system.

“Because the dome edge came down to about 8 or 9 feet above ground, we were able to mount the loudspeakers against the wall just under the lip of the dome,” says Delicate Productions Project Coordinator Bill Sage. “As it turned out, the black Martin Audio speakers blend in with the wall below the dome, which the museum had already acoustically treated with carpeting to absorb light and reduce sound reflections. We aimed them downward, so they were pointed directly at the audience in their seats, which also kept the reflections to a minimum. Martin always voices the speakers really well. We only had to use a little EQ to deal with the dome.”

The sound system also includes QSC CX 404 and CX 502 power amplifiers, an Ashly DLM 821 eight-input, rack-mount stereo line mixer that includes ducking so presenters can talk over the music, a BSS Audio Soundweb 3088 Lite for processing the speakers, a Furman PL8 conditioner and light module, and a Shure 550L desktop microphone — all of which is housed in a Middle Atlantic 12-space desk rack.

“In terms of audio output, the Digistar computer uses a Gina audio computer interface card from Echo Digital Processing, and features left, center, right, sub, left rear, and right rear outputs,” Sage says. “Even though the outputs provide discrete audio for surround, we used the Soundweb system to add delay, EQ, and some phasing to overcome the problems stemming from dome acoustics and reverberation, and to equalize the room.”

In terms of costs, Cook says the overall upgrade came in at approximately $250,000, with the Digistar 3 system totaling $170,000, and the audio costing $10,000. The one area targeted for cost-savings was installation and audio, and Delicate provided the most comprehensive and cost-effective solution for the museum.

With the new AV system, the Gladwin Planetarium has become an even more compelling attraction, offering a variety of programs for about 8,000 school kids a year and 10,000 attendees from the general public. Most of the public visitors are families with children, although they also attract college students and a strong tourist contingent visiting Santa Barbara. The Santa Barbara Community College even teaches its astronomy lab course in the planetarium.

Cook says the museum's officials are “very happy with the upgrade.” Now, patrons seeking an outer space adventure at Gladwin Planetarium can enjoy an out-of-body experience to go with it.

“It's a pretty cool system, and the sound follows the projection show well,” Sage says. “The first time we fired up the sound system, it was like an amusement park ride. I had to grab on to the seat because the sound and the video can really make you dizzy.”

J.C. Costa is a freelance writer living in New York City who specializes in technology and the arts and is currently working on two book projects. He can be reached at jcbrainstorm@nyc.rr.com.



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