Fulldome video: the cinema of the future?

This article is also available in: Italiano (Italian)

We can describe the cinema of the near future with three simple words: low budget technology. I do not want to say that large international productions will totally die, on the contrary they will allow the industry to experiment with the latest technologies and innovate the world. But the same technologies are opening the doors to a new revolution: the one that bypasses the big Studios.

A more democratic cinema

Virtual Production (I also had to write the entry on Wikipedia Italy 😃), motion capture, internet, digital and above all low-cost training, allow you to no longer be blocked by heavy budgets. Even new directors, or technicians, can have their say with a sustainable model. In the past, low-budget often meant super-low-gain. Without the support of public funding (which especially in our latitudes bring forward only Chippuò‘s friends and relatives), it was impossible to think of producing a cinematographic work, even a medium-level documentary, without losing thousands of euros.

All this reflected on the costs to the public, dictated by the large lobbies that made it inconvenient for many poor families to enjoy the Seventh Art. A day at the cinema for a family still has a cost comparable to months of Netflix. The benefits of digital distribution are enormous, but this isn’t meant to be the only method.

Personal skills are more important than budget

The capabilities of Unreal Engine 5

A great one-man-band, today he can potentially create a movie on his own. And above all, a good quality film. The participation of influencers can even help with distribution (I’ll do an article on this soon, now that I think about it). It was unimaginable until a few years ago, right?

Of course, it has always been possible to make no-budget cinemas. Thousands, perhaps millions, of young directors have done so in the past. But we were talking about very different results: without rooms worth tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars (Red et al.), Without international studies, without huge teams of specialized technicians (which were rare and expensive, given the inherent difficulties in training), he was at the maximum possible to create films that are not on the market and of a quality tending more to the low level than to the medium. Technical quality, but also limitations in storytelling caused by the technical impossibility of reproducing many ingenious ideas.

Today, this is no longer the case. A well-armored computer, with a top graphics card and a real-time render engine (among which the most popular in the cinema field, Unreal Engine, is distributed free of charge …) allows you to obtain 3D graphics that have little to envy to the big . And they can make small producers grow a lot in the cinema of the future.

Technologies for the cinema of the future

Let’s move on to analyze some of the technologies that could help us in the new cinematic use. Initially I expected to insert more than one already in this article, but given the length of time I preferred to limit myself to talking here about the fulldome video, promising myself an article in the coming days that will continue the discussion.

A planetarium

Fulldome video

Fulldome video projection is a technology that I have supported for years. It is the visualization of a video projection on the roof of a dome, to have a hemispherical overview. One of the best ways to feel “inside” a story, without using (and introverting) virtual reality viewers.

Brief history of planetariums

The technology is far from new. It is in fact used for scientific dissemination in planetariums all over the world. The oldest dome-shaped construction known today dates back to 500 BC, built by the Etruscans. The history of art, and the visit to churches and ancient structures in every corner of the world, teaches us how this form has often been used in various eras to represent the sky, Paradise and the firmament.

Extract from the book

To know the first “working” planetarium (I mean, in motion), we had to wait until 1229 when Frederick II of Swabia, Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, he brought back to Italy a tent with a domed roof on which a mechanical planetarium was hung: a clockwork mechanism, with a globe in the center (representing the Sun), from which some arms that support the planets then known depart. To learn more about the history of mechanical planetariums, this book from 1965 is interesting (the reading is free and open).

The main disadvantage, or difference, of the first planetariums was the depiction of the sky in reverse: the observer saw the solar system as if it were outside it, and not on the Earth. This was still the case in 1774 when the astronomer Eise Eisinga built, by himself, what is today the oldest planetarium still in operation. You can visit it if you pass through the city of Franeker, in the Netherlands.

Farnese Atlas. Source: Lalupa

Between the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the innovations were many and rapid. The birth of Carl Zeiss in 1846 drastically increased the quality of optical instruments (which before then were produced without preliminary design, let’s say “by trial and error”).

We then moved on to ever more precise mechanical planetariums, and the Atwood Globe in Chicago made history. A metal dome of about 5 meters built in 1913, with 692 holes to represent the stars, and a lamp to represent the Sun. For the first time, the concept of the planetarium was the modern one: the viewer saw the sky, as if it were on Earth under the real celestial vault.

The first modern planetariums

During the twentieth century, the evolution continued, the planetariums went from rare instruments available to kings and scientists, to places of scientific dissemination open to all.

The first projection planetarium was built by Zeiss, which in 1923 tested the first Carl Zeiss planetary projector in its 16-meter dome. Even today, obviously updated, they are used by some large planetariums as an alternative to digital systems. In the following years, planetariums opened in Munich, Rome, Moscow, Stockholm, Milan, Hamburg and the first non-European: the Chicago planetarium. This went on all over the world until 1983, the year of the digital turning point. The turning point, which led me to talk about planetariums in an article on the cinema of the future.

How the fulldome video was born

Here we are at a fundamental point: how the fulldome video was born.

1983, we said. We are in the States, in Richmond. More specifically, at the Virginia Science Museum. Here the world sees a digital video projector in a planetarium for the first time. It was different from the projectors we are used to today: the Digistar I, manufactured by Evans & Sutherland, used calligraphic projection. I admit to being ignorant on the subject, never in my life have I had anything to do with this technology. And the short Wikipedia entry isn’t much helpful. Of course, it was a vector (therefore, by definition, unrealistic and poorly detailed) and monochromatic (created by a single laser beam) projection. Can anyone help us understand the principle of operation in the comments? It would be interesting, out of pure historical curiosity.

The fact is, then the 90s arrived with the first DLP and LCD projectors. In 1996, Japan’s GoTo Inc. gave birth to the Virtuarium, specifically designed for projection of stereoscopic scientific videos in a planetary dome. Two years later, Sky-Scan introduced SkyVision, the first fulldome digital animation.

The equipment was still prohibitively expensive, but we were close to what is now a digital fulldome planetarium. And that it could become the cinema of the future.

Cheap fulldome cinema: is it possible?

The problem with digital planetariums was the cost of the equipment. A high resolution and good contrast video projector in the 90s and 2000s had very high costs, tens or hundreds of thousands of euros. Even more so with a good fisheye lens able to project on a hemispherical surface without noticeable distortions. To solve the problem we must therefore go back a little, indeed a lot … On October 20, 1939, when New Yorker James S. Conant submitted to the patent office what would become three years later the patent US2299682A.

Fulldome projection with convex mirror

The patent dealt with a shooting and projection system (photographic, for the time) that we could define as “Newtonian”, from the name of the inventor of the reflection telescope. The technique was not used in planetariums until 2003, when Paul Bourke, an Australian university professor, retook it to adapt it to the then growing business of small digital planetariums.

Image from: paulbourke.net

The principle is very simple: the image is projected through a classic lens for flat screens (a normal video projector, so to speak) towards a convex mirror very similar to the surveillance mirrors that until a few years ago could be seen in the corners of every supermarket. This mirror then deflects the image towards the dome ceiling, allowing it to maintain the right proportions.

To maintain good details, it is important to avoid secondary reflections due to ghosting as much as possible. This is why we usually avoid cheap surveillance mirrors, preferring (better to say, necessitating) first-surface mirrors. They are mirrors with a reflective surface (silver, usually aluminum or silver), superimposed on a support. The opposite of what happens in normal mirrors (called second surface) which have the reflective material behind another transparent such as glass or acrylic (to protect it). For more information, the mirror manufacturer Abrisa has written an interesting article on the differences between the two types of mirrors.

The problem with these mirrors is the delicacy, and the risk of blackening of the same (which must therefore be treated periodically). For the purposes of a fulldome projection, silvering with aluminum, less expensive, would also be good, since the system used for Newtonian telescopes has scientific needs of a very different nature (to maximize the frequencies of the reflected light spectrum).

Doubts of the scientific community

The Planetarian magazine, edited by the International Planetarium Society, in the March 2001 issue published various comments about the probable use, in the future, of planetariums as a place of entertainment unrelated to scientific purposes. Interesting Ken Miller, when he mentions the owner of a small cinema who, after trying various technological innovations, claimed that the cause of a bad income is always a bad movie, a bad script and a bad acting. The message counts, not the medium. And in this I agree in part. I can argue from my experience that the same message by a better medium remains a better message.

Will the cinema of the future be fulldome?

In this article it is still too early to give a definitive answer. In the coming weeks we will analyze other details and other technologies, but I remain fairly convinced that the fulldome can be a great compromise in the 21st century. Technology has accustomed us to increasingly immersive tools, and investments in virtual reality and augmented reality in recent years are pushing in this direction.

I was very excited about virtual reality, but lately I’m starting to think that its future may be less rosy than expected. I await Apple‘s entry into the sector to get a clearer idea, for now the main sponsor is Meta Inc., a.k.a. Facebook, a company that despite common opinion has never stood out for its ability to predict future. A company that has grown thanks to a single good idea of its founder Zuckemberg and his ability to attract investments, but which has subsequently developed only thanks to the acquisition of good, almost alternative ideas that work well in the same sector.

Virtual reality will still have a good success for the purposes for which it was initially designed. It has strong potential in gaming and in cultural and educational contexts, and its media push may serve to increase interest in an innovation of storytelling in images to get closer to a “collective virtual reality”.

As I imagine the situation to date, it will be augmented reality that will take us the most time during the day. An analysis on the use of AR for interactivity in the cinema of the future will also be fundamental.

As usual, I would be very happy if we could create a debate. I therefore invite you to comment, criticize or give new ideas under this article. And thanking you, I give you an appointment in the next few days for a next trip.

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