Hi all. With the lull in postings through the holidays, I thought that I'd
try to spark some discussion with an excerpt from my December Digital
Frontiers column published in the IPS Planetarian. Not everyone on the
Fulldome list is an IPS member (though perhaps you should be...). My column
was in response to some of the discussion that we had on this list a few
months ago. I'm now working on the next column that focuses on the issues
raised in 5) below; diversity of programming. Feel free to send me your
- Ed Lantz, ed@...
Those who frequent Ryan Wyatt's fulldome.org list have been witness to a
flurry of passionate - and in some respects, extraordinary - discussions
about digital domes, the future of planetariums, and the future role of IPS.
Expanding the Dome
Interestingly, the fulldome medium has attracted a great deal of interest
from artists, filmmakers, educators, engineers, and other professionals with
roots outside of the planetarium profession. These individuals question why
so many versatile "virtual reality theaters" should be dedicated to
astronomy topics alone. Some have even questioned the appropriateness of
IPS as the organization to lead professional advancement of the rapidly
growing fulldome community. They point out that IPS's support programs and
membership are deeply rooted in the tradition of astronomy education - not
technology, filmmaking, virtual reality, or art.
Others point out that there would be no fulldome medium if not for
pioneering planetarians and institutions, and the support of IPS alongside
the many regional chapters who have welcomed vendors and their digital wares
in recent years. Clearly the fulldome medium was born within the
planetarium community and has largely been nurtured by innovative
planetarians who are eager to enter the digital age. Digital producers
and storytellers have much to learn from traditional planetarium arts.
If you take an honest look at the issues raised by the fulldome community,
you see that they are driven by legitimate needs, concerns and visions that
deserve a supportive and understanding professional society. IPS has been
meeting the needs of a niche profession focused on astronomy education, so
it is not surprising that support is currently lacking in areas that will be
crucial for nurturing fulldome into maturity. A number of long-time IPS
members and officers recognize the unique challenges of supporting the
digital dome community, and are making an effort to rise to these
challenges. Here's a few of the issues that have been raised:
1) Inclusiveness. Vendors are traditionally not part of the organizational
core of IPS. However, the vendors are the ones who have created and driven
the new digital technologies and they remain integral to advancing the
profession. Indeed, there can be issues with corporate rivalries and bias,
but they are not fundamentally unlike institutional rivalries and bias.
Well-run professional societies do not tolerate overt favoritism or
commercialism from anyone. Inclusiveness means support for technical
exchange, standards development, and other activities that reach out and
support the larger community of stakeholders.
2) Recognition of technical innovation. IPS needs a program to recognize or
reward technological advancement in the profession. There is a juried
reward for the best planetarium script, but there is not an IPS award for
excellence in things like theater design or technological innovation.
Showcasing and supporting successful innovators recognizes those who are
truly benefiting the profession, and raises the bar for others.
3) Timing. The equipment that planetarians have traditionally used to work
their magic - star projectors, slide projectors, special effects and audio
systems - have not been subject to fundamental changes in decades. The
substantive market changes wrought by digital projection have primarily
occurred in the past 4-5 years with the refinement of real-time digital
planetarium capabilities that reproduce (and surpass) traditional star
projector motions. In this time period, IPS has had 3 conferences.
Fulldomer's have commented that this is too infrequent, considering the pace
that these technologies are developing. They want a professional society
that provides dedicated international support and leadership for the rapidly
growing digital dome medium.
4) Infrastructure and financial support. IPS is a volunteer organization
without a paid staff. This vastly reduces the level of support that is
possible from this organization. The fulldome community could benefit from
an actively managed website, a newsletter, a serious standards effort, etc.
These things can be funded by grants, but even this requires a dedicated
staffer or secretariat to support the writing and administration of a grant.
5) Diversity of programming. By definition, the planetarium is a kinetic
diorama of the celestial sphere portrayed from a geocentric eyepoint. The
fulldome community is exploring a wide range of programming across the arts
and sciences, and they seek an expanded definition of the planetarium. In a
recent email list discussion there seemed to be agreement that planetariums
should stand for "meaningful media," programming that uplifts, enlightens,
educates, or otherwise transforms visitors in a positive way. There was
general consensus between planetarians and the fulldome community that media
entertainment of an expressly commercial nature - such as IMAX's recent
foray into Hollywood films - was not their primary interest. This shared
desire for planetariums to offer meaningful programming could be the common
ground needed to redefine the mission of planetariums and embrace a larger
6) Image. When school planetariums are seen as classrooms dedicated to
astronomy, they must compete with all the other arts and sciences for
survival. Astronomy is no longer a leading educational objective for
schools, resulting in school planetarium closings in recent years. Public
planetariums have also struggled to attract visitors and have suffered
closings. Some fulldome enthusiasts feel that the prevailing public
perception of planetariums could limit the success of the new fulldome
facilities. Indeed, many large public institutions have changed their name
in an attempt to re-brand the traditional planetarium, i.e. Cyberdome,
Imaginarium, or Virtuarium. This image issue needs to be addressed.
7) Inertia. Perhaps the biggest concern that the fulldome community has
expressed is the difficulty of changing years of inertia within the
planetarium community. Should fulldomers try to re-invent IPS to meet
their unique needs? Will they be granted sufficient autonomy to evolve the
medium? Can IPS deal with rapid change? It has been suggested that IPS's
Full Dome Video Committee, now lead by Ryan Wyatt, be granted a degree of
autonomy similar the Association for Computing Machinery's special interest
groups including SIGGRAPH, ACM's special interest group (SIG) for computer
graphics (GRAPH). A fulldome SIG within IPS would support issues that are
uniquely digital in nature (i.e. standards, production issues, show
The Future is Bright
The officers of IPS recognize the importance of fulldome to the planetarium
profession and have expressed a desire to nurture this growing community.
Discussions with Martin George, Shawn Laatsch, Jon Elvert, and other IPS
officers have affirmed this. Candidates for IPS president elect have
reached out to the fulldome community for feedback and to offer support. If
the energy and momentum of the fulldome community is embraced and supported,
it will revitalize IPS and the planetarium community as a whole. At the
same time, it must be recognized that IPS has many duties and supporting the
digital planetarium is but one of them. IPS must continue to support the
full spectrum of planetariums, from portable to classroom to public
institutions, whether digital or optomechanical.
Times of change bring challenges and opportunities alike. Now is a good
time to re-examine what a planetarium is, what it could be, and how IPS can
assist in this natural evolution of the dome. By taking a leadership role
in the digital revolution, IPS can maximize the positive, educational, and
culturally enriching use of this new medium and will position the
organization for renewed growth and a bright future.