Domefest at the Chabot

Late yesterday afternoon I stumbled across this article on Cnet’s “Immersing in DomeFest video”. What? Immersion? Domes? There’s a festival for immersive videos broadcast on planetarium domes? Tonight? Count me in!
It was 3:55pm and you could only order tickets online until 4pm. So of course, instead of calling the box office like a normal person, I dutifully began ignoring the person I was talking to on the phone (you know who you are, my apologies), surfed over to the ticket site, whipped out my AmEx, and completed the deed – with two minutes to spare.
At 6pm I pointed my car to the east and began the long migration to parts unseen, determined to experience this peculiar ritual of story-telling.
The Chabot Space & Science Center is a science center and planetarium in the hills above Oakland, California. I’d always meant to go there, but never actually done it. So this was a great excuse. Traveling up the Oakland hills to Chabot was a surreal experience, as you move quite quickly from urban blight to expensive hillside community to shadowy forest. The views of the San Francisco Bay area, peeking between the trees, were unbelievably gorgeous and almost certainly impossible to capture adequately with my camera – even if I could pull off the picture, it would not capture the grand views before me. If only I had an immersive environment to show them in – hey, wait. Hmmm.
Just about the time I began to wonder if my high-speed corner pivoting action might not result in someone having venison for dinner, the Chabot appeared on my horizon. And a lot of small children. Brakes.
The Chabot has a 70-foot dome that they’re quite proud of, and they appropriately call it “The MegaDome”. Okay, actually, they call it “Tien MegaDome Theater”, but I don’t know what Tien means and I’ll assume it’s a misspelling. Anyway. I wondered how it might compare to The Tech Museum’s IMAX Dome, which we recently used to host one of our developer conferences. That dome is incredible, with huge, crisp wrap-around images, and a sound system to blow your ears off.
Turns out that the MegaDome is somewhat smaller, and positioned more directly above the viewer than the Tech’s IMAX. The Tech’s IMAX is pitched at a steepish angle which enables peripheral vision with only a moderate upward gaze, while the MegaDome was closer to a traditional planetarium or laserium, encouraging me to lay back quite far in order to get the complete peripheral experience. As a smaller dome, I also got peculiar unintended parallax effects even though I was sitting just two seats left of the primary camera assembly.
DomeFest itself is a great idea that is coming into its own. I’m an absolute nut about immersive experiences, and I encourage people in San Francisco to try both Audium and the Tactile Dome, two unusual 70’s-era San Francisco-style immersive experiences that you’ll certainly end up telling your friends about. DomeFest is a modern take on immersive media. Essentially they’ve turned the dome over to artists – quite literally. DomeFest animations play back in full 360-degree glory and are nicely sharp, although the broadcast technology is still a trifle tenuous. There are small regions of the screen where high-contrast animations briefly blur and diverge as they travel across camera boundaries, and the networked Windows machines which play back the animations introduce occasional frame skip into playback. For the most part this technology is quite adequate to produce an immersive experience though.
The animations in DomeFest ranged from conceptual to fantastic, from scientific visualization to full-on CG cartoons, and included planetarium demo reels from Evans & Sutherland as well as highly-processed video from Burning Man. All in all quite a broad range, with mixed results. We saw the 2004 DemoFest winners as well as the 2005 winners, and the evolution from year to year was marked.
Immersivity was mixed; I didn’t feel as immersed as at the Tech’s IMAX screen, though there were times where I did need to close my eyes as the experience was overwhelming (usually due to rapid rotation in a 3D world). I found myself wondering what it would be like to hook a game experience up to this dome. Hmmmmm.
This Sunday, artists are invited over to the Chabot for a tutorial on how to use the equipment and create animations to play back in a Dome environment. Apparently the frame is about 8 megapixels, so we’re talking quite a lot of data. It’s probably also challenging to get the full experience as you’re creating your animation unless you have a little porto-dome at home. 🙂
I’ll certainly keep an eye out for next year’s DomeFest. I hope you will too!