Exclusive: Behind the Scenes at the World's Most Technologically Advanced Planetarium!


We’ve heard the phrase “visual computing” being used a lot lately – it refers to the use of computers and graphical environments to interact with and manipulate heady data sets and other textbookish content. Well, we’ve encountered one of the most visually stunning and impressive examples of visual computing in San Francisco’s Morrison Planetarium , the new $20 million dollar facility that’s a part of the recently reopened California Academy of Sciences. This isn’t your daddy’s planetarium (nor is it Barack Obama’s famous $3 million dollar star charter , either).

The Morrison Planetarium is a technological marvel, enabling astronomers not only to show traditional star charts, but to guide visitors through an immersive fly-through of our universe – realistically rendered in real-time . We were fortunate enough to be invited for a private screening of the new exhibit, and went behind to scenes to check out exactly what PC hardware drives this modern stellar cartography lab . And before you ask – yes, the system can play Quake.

We'll guide you through a tour of the planetarium, show you what visitors get to experience in the amazing digital presentation, and then walk you behind the scenes for an exclusive look at how the tech gods who built the whole system make it work.  Trust us, you'll be impressed.

First, some details about the physical facility. Walking into the Academy of Sciences building, you can't miss the giant Morrison Planetarium dome sitting right in the middle of the building. The actual planetarium is a 75-ft diameter dome housed in a 90-ft diameter shell, making it the largest planetarium in North America, and one of the biggest in the world. The room accommodates 300 visitors, and unlike most planetariums, seating is sloped at a 30 degree angle so patrons aren't hurting their necks looking up into space, but feel like they're watching a wholly immersive IMAX movie.

While the original Morrison Planetarium, built in 1952, wowed audiences with its custom-made star projector, the modern version does away with lasers and fills its 75-diameter screen with six high-resolution professional-grade projectors. This makes the Morrison Planetarium not only the largest digital planetarium in the world, but also the largest digital theater as well.
A cut-out view of the Morrison Planetarium. This massive building puts Star Trek's astrometrics lab to shame.
Ryan Wyatt, the director of the Morrison Planetarium, introduces the Fragile Planet program before a group of journalists on the Academy of Science's press preview day. Presenters are able to take direct control of the program and manually "drive" through the galaxy using PDAs.

The change in background color isn't due to our camera's exposure settings. A ring of thousands of LED lights run along the rim of the dome. The RGB LEDs themselves are very programmable, and could be their own light show.

A view from the top: The planetarium has 300 seats, arranged in a 30-degree slope like a movie theater. This is probably the only time you'll see it look empty -- every showing has been packed and sold out since the Academy of Sciences opened its doors earlier this month.

Next, the Fragile Planet presentation

We were given a private screening of the standard show presentation, an production called Fragile Planet that was produced in-house at the Academy. Narrated by Sigourney Weaver (who also did the voice-over for the awesome Planet Earth Discovery Channel mini-series), the 25-minute show lifted us out of our seats and propelled us in a incredible journey through space. It's difficult to understand exactly how amazing the show is unless you're actually sitting in the planetarium. The domed display filled our entire peripheral vision -- the effect was so encompassing that at times we forgot where we were.

Flying through the solar system at near-light speed, soaring down over the landscape of the Moon and Mars, and then warping out to the outer reaches of the galaxy -- this is as close to being an astronaut as most of us are going to get. Even more trippy though was the optical illusion created by the dome's curvature. Even though the planetarium show isn't projected in stereoscopic 3D (though it's technically possible), the concave construction of the dome made some of the images look like they were popping out of the screen (like the illusion you see when looking at the front of a spoon).

The Academy has plans to bring a DVD and High-def version of the presentation  to market, but hasn't announced a release schedule yet.

The show starts off with the planetarium's walls "disappearing" around you, so you can see the surrounding Academy exhibits. You're then lifted up through the ceiling, where you begin a superman-esque flight around the San Francisco Bay Area before zooming off into space.

Above and Below: the computer rendition of the Academy's "living roof" , compared to the actual roof exhibit, where 1.7 million native plants and wildlife flourish.

As we fly faster toward space, the curve of the horizon begins to appear. You just can't get the same experience with Google Earth.

Near real-time scientific data acquired through research networks (like CineGrid ) can be fed into the program and overlaid on top of the presentation's 3D models. The planetarium staff plans to incorporatethese feeds into future productions to bring awareness to environmental concerns.

"Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity -- in all this vastness -- there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves. It is up to us. It's been said that astronomy is a humbling, and I might add, a character-building experience. To my mind, there is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world."  - Carl Sagan

Next, the hardware behind the show

After being thoroughly stunned by the presentation, we were taken back stage by Jon Britton, the Academy's Senior Systems Engineer, to take a look at the computers that actually power the show. Deep in the basement of the facility, we were shown the server room, which houses three separate playback systems that play different roles in bringing the stars to life.

The first is DigitalSky, a software system developed by a company called Sky-Skan . This is the more traditional constellation projection system, which usually plays as visitors are getting seated before the show. Astronomical bodies can be highlighted and zoomed into view with a press of a button, and presenters can use a joystick or mouse to navigate around the stars in real-time. When projected onto the dome, DigitalSky can effectively replace the night sky -- astronomy professors have used it on foggy nights to teach students.

The second software system is called Global Immersion, which is the hardware that powers the main presentation playback. The video is stored in a proprietary Pixar format, and packs the 30fps video over a string of files that require significant hardware muscle to process. They're not just playing a large AVI file here. A combination of software and hardware blending is also required to align the six projectors so that the video is perfectly synced and aspected to look like one giant display.

Finally, the last system is the Uniview cluster, which runs the real-time 3D software developed by a Swedish company called SCISS AB. This is the most important computer system in the facility, as it's the software platform where main presentations can be scripted, pre-visualized, recorded, rendered, or played back in real time. It essentially is a computer gaming environment, and can actually be navigated with an Xbox 360 controller.

Each of these playback systems is powered by seven computers, one for each projector channel in addition to a master system. The Uniview cluster is run on HP XW8600 workstations, each running dual-core Xeons and Nvidia Quadro FX5600 video cards.

All of the video is funneled through dual-link DVI cables into a Black Diamond DVI matrix, which then feeds through the network to the six projectors surrounding the dome. A fiber-based ThinkLogical KVM is also used so engineers can access any of the systems remotely from the planetarium's main control area.

DigitalSky's control panel. Zooming into Jupiter or labeling it in sky can be done with one click.

Yep, the planetarium software all runs on Windows XP, with no plans to upgrade to Vista.

All of the high-resolution video is fed through this Black Diamond DVI Matrix

The academy staff is hooked up to a 10Gbit fiber network that retrieves scientific data from other institutions and research facilities to incorporate into the presentations.

The HP workstations that run the show in real-time. Note that there are six of each machines, one for each projector and another that syncs them up.

We're glad to know that with the real computation work, the engineers here turn to PCs. All of the other exhibits in the Academy are actually run on Mac Minis

Next, we scrutinize the actual dome, projectors, and sound system

Jon then took us back to the planetarium dome, where we were able to examine the screen up close and walk in the space behind its shell. The actual dome is constructed with an aluminum "nanoseam" , a new technology from Spitz, Inc, the leading producer of planetarium dome screens. The nanoseam panels are completely flush with no overlapping panels or exposed rivets to create a seamless, smooth, and highly reflective display. These panels are attached to a tilted steel frame made of 100% recycled steel, to be as green as possible.

In between the dome and its outer fiberglass shell is a narrow work area, which houses an impressive speaker setup worthy of any IMAX theater. The presentation is broadcast with 5.1 surround sound, which is delivered by a ring of Meyer  Sound speakers at the dome's zenith. This array of speakers is backed by an imposing set of subwoofers on the floor, which provided the thundering bass we heard as we were hurled through space. Jon told us that the sound system was specially spec'd by Meyer engineers for optimal placement during the planetarium's construction.

The projectors are from Projection Design, a Norwegian projector manufacturer, and were arranged in conjunction with Visual Acuity, a technical visualization design consultant group. Specifically, the planetarium uses six F30 sx+ projectors , which are the world's first WUXGA projector (able to project at 1920x1200). Currently these six DLP projectors operate at 1400x1050 resolution, but there are plans in place to upgrade to 4K projectors (with a max resolution of 4096x2160 for each projector ). There are a few pixels lost due to overlap between projectors, but the current setup projects roughly 8 million pixels on the dome!

A ring of LED lights surrounds the base of the dome, providing colorful ambient lighting before the show. These LEDs can be programmed to light up in any color, though the planetarium has opted for a comforting earthy glow during downtime.

A closer look at the nanoseam panels of the dome. From about 10 feet back, the panels blend together so you can't see the seams.

Two sets of Meyer Sound subwoofers housed behind the dome, carefully arranged for optimal sound quality. Below, you can see one set of speakers mounted on the side of the dome wall. The dome exterior has ladders that allow technicians to climb all the way to the top for maintenance.

One of the six Projection Design F30 projectors in its alcove. This projector actually projects (an inverse image) to a mirror that reflects the video to the dome wall. We were warned not to accidentally touch the mirror, which has to remain smudge free and perfectly aligned.

In addition to softwad and hardware blending, the projectors each have custom-made physical frames that create the right aspect ratio for their images to seamlessly overlap.

A series of ventilation holes flank the side of the dome to provide positive pressure for patrons, which helps alleviate motion sickness.

Next, we get our hands on the planetarium show controls!

Finally, we were allowed to enter the main control room behind the planetarium seating to check out how the real-time navigation works. Surprisingly, the controls for the Uniview program worked much like navigating through a game of Sins of the Solar Empire! We used the mouse to pan and rotate around, holding down Ctrl to alternate between orbiting and panning. The WASD keys functioned just like they would in any first-person shooter we've played, except this time, our actions were being projected on the biggest screen we've ever seen--essentially an IMAX-size screen wrapped around a 75-foot diameter dome. The Uniview program runs on OpenGL, and we were able to confirm that Quake would definitely work -- though the engineers wouldn't admit to actually running it.

In addition to desktop controls, the presenters can drive the system with a Xbox 360 controller (so rad!) or Windows Mobile-based PDAs to pilot while fielding questions from the audience. The software team is also working on an SDK that'll allow iPhone control, so you could fly around using either the multi-touch screen or accelerometer sensors!

Watching the show, examining the hardware, and actually getting hands-on with the software was an incredible experience. We want to thank Jon Britton and Ryan Wyatt for this behind-the-scenes opportunity, and want to encourage any Bay Area locals to check out the exhibit. PC computing doesn't get much more Maximum than this.

From this terminal, the planetarium's pilot can access controls for all three of the rendering systems using a combination of remote desktop and fancy fiber KVMs.When the show's running, the desk is lit with small red lights, which don't interfere with the show or destroy anyone's night vision.

This remote controls the transitions from one rendering system to another, as well as the planetarium's house lights.

In this scene, the blue highlights on the screen represent planets in our galaxy that we've discovered. To date, we've only found 322.

Originally posted:  2008-10-22 12:00:0

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