The Big Picture

Planetariums, Education and Space Science

Ryan Wyatt
Rose Center for Earth and Space
American Museum of Natural History
New York, New York

A planetarium truly presents a “big picture,” with images that immerse an audience in science stories. Although planetarium stories have typically revolved around the night sky, planetarium technology today can represent the discoveries of space science better than ever before. With immersive video technology, domes can be filled with computer-generated visuals that depict current astronomical discoveries with unprecedented fidelity.

In the current Rose Center Space Show, “The Search for Life,” each image (out of more than 42,000) covers about four million square inches of dome surface. Audience members view a show that fills almost half their field of view, and at a rate of 30 big pictures per second, which visually approximates an alternate reality—corresponding not to an experience under a dome, but an experience inside an environment.

At its best, immersive video allows audiences to experience a virtual environment in an exceedingly visceral way. An “immersed” audience member becomes part of the action—and part of the science! Award-winning large-format-film director Ben Shedd’s article, “Exploding the Frame,” describes an approach to large-format cinema that seeks a new cinematic language to work in this medium. He writes, “The whole group of giant screen film formats have one thing in common: the gigantic images extend the edges of the projected film image to the edge of our peripheral vision or even beyond it. I believe we are not just talking about bigger films here, but a new cinematic world. It is a frameless view, an unframed moving image medium.” [1] With computer-generated, geometrically-correct imagery, immersive (sometimes called “fulldome”) video continues the trend established by large-format film over the last several decades.

What does this mean for those who come to see a contemporary planetarium show? Because the emphasis shifts from story to environment, a modern planetarium show is more about taking a journey than watching a narrative. At the end of a trip, fellow travellers may compare notes and find they have gleaned very different experiences from the same itinerary. Likewise, at the end of a planetarium journey, every audience member takes home something unique to him or her. (In the sense that museums allow for travel without leaving a building, or science centers offer opportunities for exploration, the planetarium “journey” mirrors other paradigms in informal education.)

The individuality of the experience presents challenges to those of us who would like to evaluate the quality and effectiveness of planetarium programs. (Again, a challenge throughout the informal education realm.) Somehow, one would like to account for the matrix of reactions from the cognitive to the aesthetic to the visceral, while probing further than, “So, did you like it?”

To that end, the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) conducted pre- and post-viewing surveys of audiences who attended the Rose Center’s debut space show, “Passport to the Universe.” Those surveyed responded positively to the show and showed significant gains in comprehending many of the show’s underlying concepts: an understanding of humanity’s “cosmic address,” the relative size and location of stars, the structure of the Milky Way Galaxy, and the origin of heavy elements through nucleosynthesis. [2] Further surveys of audiences who saw “The Search for Life” indicated that the immersive feel of the show had broad appeal, from eight-year-olds to adults. As one teenager commented, “It was much better than seeing it in a movie theater. The special effects were like actually being there.” [3]

Every survey helps, but overall, greater attention needs to be paid to the learning process that occurs under the planetarium dome. Increased evaluation can help pinpoint what works and what does not—an especially important step as the technology driving the shift in planetariums reaches an increasing number of theaters and the audience for immersive video widens. Implementation of the technology in new theaters should take advantage of what their predecessors have taught.

Right now, most immersive video productions are the purvey of only a small number of sizable venues associated with fairly large-scale institutions: only a few dozen theaters are in operation around the world. But as the medium evolves, smaller theaters will have access to similar technology, and the variety of presentations (from pre-recorded to real-time, fairly passive to highly interactive) will increase dramatically.

For example, Small Digital Planetariums (affectionately called “SDPs”) will soon offer unprecedented interactivity with the cosmos, in a format that permits each participant to control their own experience. In the spring of 2001, AMNH rolled out its astronomy-oriented Moveable Museum, featuring a 1.5-meter-diameter vertically-positioned dome running software that allows students to pilot around the solar system. Although similar opportunities for one-on-one interaction may be rare, the same technology supports single-lens projectors in school planetariums: both in terms of the hardware to project higher and higher resolution images and the software to navigate through space and time.

Particularly as the medium continues to evolve, the quality of tools and access to supporting media need to improve. With an increasingly large audience of planetarians (with varying technical expertise) interested in incorporating immersive video in their presentations, hardware and software tools need to support easy acquisition and inclusion of materials into fulldome programs.

Many fulldome systems include real-time displays—of traditional planetarium functions such as sidereal motion and orrery simulation as well as 3-D data and virtual spaces. Because the field is new and the market remains relatively small, an overall improvement in 3-D capabilities and investment in user-friendly interfaces seems both necessary and likely in the coming years. Real-time solutions gain particular importance in light of the fact that pre-rendered, high-resolution fulldome video will remain expensive to produce for the foreseeable future.

Indeed, a further barrier to successful implementation of new technology into the planetarium sector is, quite simply, economics. Although costs continue to drop, fulldome video remains expensive, especially relative to the budgets traditionally allocated for planetarium production. The American Museum of Natural History invests large-format-film-sized budgets in its space shows, which represent substantially larger budgets than most productions’, and a significant investment to recoup.

Pre-produced video sequences, especially those created in high-resolution fulldome format (i.e, those with at least ten-megapixel resolution and a two-pi-steradian field of view), will be of tremendous use to the planetarium community. (Lower-resolution SDPs currently make use of megapixel resolutions, but technology should rapidly bring even these systems into the three- to four-megapixel realms.) One can imagine the need for a library of standard video segments—depicting astronomical processes, displaying data on objects, or illustrating basic astronomical concepts (particularly those in 3-D). Ideally, these segments will combine scientific accuracy with visual engagement, capitalizing on the new cinematic language of which Ben Shedd writes.

In fact, the Space Telescope Science Institute has already taken an unprecedented step in providing pre-rendered fulldome material to planetariums free of charge. [4] Several planetarium programs have already incorporated these segments into storylines, and the imagery has received positive response.

Another challenge planetariums face is a variety of audience expectations that range from sitting under the stars with a lecturer to watching slide shows with pre-recorded narration, from listening to rock music accompanied by laser projections to (perhaps) an large-format-film-style immersive production. Audiences do not understand the diversity of experiences that take place under planetarium domes, let alone the changing nature of the medium, and most people’s expectations are defined by the trips that they took to planetariums as elementary-school students. The typical planetarium-as-experience (as opposed to planetarium-as-venue, where a changing slate of programs might be more expected) places most visitors in a “oh, I’ve done that before” mode of thinking that curtails return visits to a facility. According to a frequently-quoted planetarium adage, the typical person visits a planetarium three times in their life: as a child, with their children, and with their grandchildren.

Unfortunately, because most data about planetariums are approximately as anecdotal as the child-to-grandchildren adage, it is difficult to identify means by which planetariums can help define expectations and attract a wider audience. With any luck, immersive video will help attract more people into planetariums and perhaps increase the visibility of the field in general.

Our culture is immersed in science—science inextricably linked to people’s everyday lives. Astronomy and space science have proven to be an appealing and effective in-road to science education, and planetariums are part of that success. As planetariums continue to immerse audiences in increasingly realistic scientific visualizations and narratives, they can give people big pictures that contextualize complex science stories. Each person can take away their own “big picture” and a unique experience of their place in it.


[1] Ben Shedd, “Exploding the Frame,”
[2] American Museum of Natural History in-house survey
[3] Insight Research Group evaluation for the American Museum of Natural History
[4] Space Telescope Science Institute’s Informal Education web site,


American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) and Hayden Planetarium’s Digital Universe
Even without a dome, you can experience AMNH’s Digital Universe! Via a relatively simple interface through the National Center for Supercomputing Application’s Partiview software. Users can introduce themselves to the 3-D universe by navigating through a model of the Milky Way Galaxy developed at AMNH. Similar software runs in the Hayden Planetarium dome, used for live lectures and monthly programs. Future fulldome venues can potentially offer immersive versions of this type of experience—either for a group viewing a guided tour, or for an individual exploring alone. Pilot activities for grades 4-6, 7-9, and 10-12 are also available on the site.
Download Partiview and the Digital Universe from

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