I have been quiet the last couple of weeks because I have had my head down on getting the Eclipse release of WWT out and building some new feature and supporting the folks at Adler Planetarium in Chicago who are launching a new WWT produced show “Cosmic Wonder”. Mark SubbaRao, Ph.D. and Doug Roberts Ph.D. and the Adler have been great partners over the years from the begging of WWT development. They were the ones who helped push us into full dome and stereo 3D, and they have built many different exhibits using WWT. The Space Visualization Lab (SVL) at the Adler has been testing and pushing the limits of WWT for 5 years now.
With all that experience with WWT when it came time to create a new show Mark knew just where to turn. He had been using preview releases of the WWT Eclipse for a while and had success using WWT to produce Chris Lintott’s “Hubble’s Greatest Hits” so he was not entirely breaking new ground technically, but this would be a entirely new kind of Planetarium show in that while it was scripted, it was a live performance every time. Almost 100 % of the show was actual imagery of the sky, artifacts and 360 degree panoramas. There was none of the pre-rendered Hollywood style effects that many shows live on today. It was a step back in to the roots of the Adler but using modern real-time rendering technology to tell stories in the planetarium like they used to do with the mechanical starball and Atwood Sphere.
There were a number of features and refinements in the WWT Eclipse release that helped make this possible. Firstly full dome tours now support all of the rich overlays that have been in desktop tours. The overlay elements can be positions and rotated anywhere in the dome. The new transitions allow for graceful fades and cuts between sky, Earth, Solar System and Panoramas to make a polished look. You can also animate rotation and tilt of the dome to further animate the experiences. Positioning in a dome can be a challenge, but the new authoring tool allows you to preview on a flat panel in either a dome master layout, or using the dome preview mode, which lets you tilt and pivot you virtual head to look around the dome. You can also your the overlay list to see all the objects in a slide and act of them, even when you can’t see them on a flat display. You can also edit scale, and positioning as numeric entry’s to get exactly what you want. You can now also select multiple objects and act on them in groups, and using alignment tools to lay them out. In a full dome environment you can simply load a tour and it will sync the tour with all the projector servers, and you can keep track of them now with a handy build-in cluster management tool.
No show is complete without music. While WWT had great built-in audio handling capabilities, a world-class planetarium needs more that just a stereo or 5.1 track. Most theater domes are equipped with digital playback system that use SMTPE code to synchronize 20 or more tracks to fill the dome with a perfect multi-channel audio mix. How do you keep the WWT tour in time with the audio? Sounds like it would be complex, but it is really quite simple. Just add a master audio track to the tour with a SMPTE signal track and feed the master’s audio output to the SMTPE sync signal. Now as you play the tour, or skip around from slide to slide, the audio will always be in sync!
Since Eclipse is not quite out the door this week game me the chance to run and tune WWT in what may be the world’s most advanced and complicated planetarium dome. There are a total of 20 projectors blasting 81 megapixels onto the dome. Each unit is controlled by a separate PC running WWT. It is important that everything be running smoothly on all 20 machines to get the best looking show. So we worked to tune the display engineand the shows hardware and software to get the best balance of image loading and rendering performance.
I got to see the finished product this week at the press preview and I was really impressed. The imagery, music and narration work together impressively and the Adler has created a unique show that really delivers the wonder of the cosmos.