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Mobile Domes: Coming to a Parking Lot near You

Seeing stars is just the beginning

3 min read

The room is suffused in shades of gray, except for a bluish computer monitor to one side. From its glow, I can make out a circle of smooth curved walls arching upward almost 3 meters and meeting in the center overhead. A fan whirrs in the otherwise quiet interior: a blower is inflating this perfect nylon dome. In the darkness, I get the illusory sense of a vacuous sanctuary.

Sanctuary until a flap opens and a man ducks in on a shaft of light, followed a gaggle of chattering sixth-graders. He invites them to find a comfortable spot, and they happily flop to their backs, sending up a mix of bubblegum perfumes and sweaty sneakers. One boy whispers, ”This is cool.”

”Hi,” says Joel Halvorson, program director for the Minnesota Planetarium Society. ”What we’re inside is an inflatable dome, what we like to think of as a mobile planetarium.”

Moments later, his assistant, Sally Goff, works the laptop. She douses the lights, and giggles percolate instantly. She clicks a few more keys, lighting up a small, fish-eye-lens projector in the middle of the room, and suddenly the Earth appears directly overhead, three meters wide in all its luminous glory. A chorus of ”oohs,” and a girl spontaneously reaches her hand skyward. Another click and we’re coursing to the edges of the galaxy. More ”oohs.” The kids are hooked.

The inflatable dome I shared with the bunch of squirrelly preteens sits about six meters in diameter and can accommodate 20-plus viewers. It can feel a little cramped, but once the lights go out, the sense of space seems vast. In our case, the show took us all the way to edges of the universe, complete with an enthusiastic voice-over by Tom Hanks. It’s what people in this business call a ”dome immersion experience.”

Sixth-graders aren’t the only ones who think mobile domes are cool. Scientists, designers, moviemakers, and a whole lot of professionals in between have discovered that dome visualization can enhance the way they work, share information, and solve problems.

”There’s such a usage of spatial and visualization tools in our society right now,” says David McConville of the Elumenati, the Minneapolis company that designed Halvorson’s mobile scientific funhouse. ”Better visualization means better problem solving. Professionals in a variety of fields can see different scenarios in a new way—like with a hurricane, for instance—and come up with better solutions.”

Since forming in 2003, the Elumenati has jumped into dozens of ventures, selling its dome system—the top-of-the-line version costs about US $100,000—and developing content for groups as far ranging as Cirque du Soleil, Disney, the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, where it’s used to examine molecular structures. ”We’re working a lot with geospatial companies like Eon Reality, ESRI, and Google Earth,” says D’nardo Colucci, another founding member of the Elumenati. In June, the company and its domes were at the International Symposium on Digital Earth. Sponsored by Google Earth and ESRI, it’s the world’s biggest get-together of geospatial scientists.

Frank Niepold, climate education coordinator at the NOAA, has had one of the Elumenati domes on the road for a year. ”We want a climate-literate public. We can go from city to city and bring content where they are,” Niepold says. ”Just as important, we go to policy-makers: governors, mayors, emergency management professionals. Seeing issues in this way will help people make better decisions.”

And with a mobile dome, it’s easy to pack up and go visit new groups every day. When the Minnesota Planetarium Society’s traveling show ends, Halvorson flattens and folds the dome in just minutes. Including the fan, air hoses, and projector, the tidy bundle fits into a shipping tub about 1 meter by 1 meter by 1.5 meters. ”At 82 kilograms, you can haul it in a minivan or ship it across the country for under $200,” Halvorson says with a smile.

Besides mobility, however, dome immersion is attracting people who need a way to wrap their minds around huge data sets—sometimes several terabytes worth of information. Take the Digital Universe Atlas, a data set that contains all accumulated information on the known universe. The American Museum of Natural History, of New York City, worked with SCISS, of Stockholm, to develop Uniview, a visualization platform for the Digital Universe data set.

”In Uniview, you can move around the universe as you choose. Like in the Hanks piece, you can fly out to Orion,” Colucci explains. ”When you look at a monitor, you see a sculpture. When you look in a dome, you’re in it. People are realizing this is a natural way to view things.”

About the Author

Jon Zurn is editor in chief of Portrait of Achievement Magazine , a journal dedicated to youth, service, and education.

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