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A Light Show Beyond Lasers
By MICHEL MARRIOTT
For decades, planetariums and science centers have mixed their offerings of instructive starscapes and educational films with more fanciful fare: laser shows customarily set to thunderous rock music. But in these times of computer-generated special effects and home entertainment centers with theater-quality sound systems, even lasers may be starting to show their age.
So early next month in Manhattan, the Hayden Planetarium will be turning its own supercomputer power to a new use: creating and projecting audiovisual tricks light years beyond the colorful straight lines that characterize most laser shows.
"SonicVision," which is to open on Oct. 3, is 35 minutes of soaring, churning and immersive visualizations set to a thumping score of techno-electronica and contemporary rock mixed by the recording artist Moby. A recent test screening revealed vast, surreal three-dimensional visions that morphed back and forth from the purely abstract - a kind of kinetic, cosmic tie-dye - to whirling wheeled machines, seas of blinking human eyes, architectural forms and optical puns. All of it is computer-generated and none of it involves lasers.
"As wonderful as the laser shows were, they weren't appropriate for a planetarium in the 21st century," said Myles Gordon, the vice president for education of the American Museum of Natural History, which houses the Hayden, part of the Rose Center for Earth and Space. "How do we harness the technology and advances that have been made in projection, sound and production over the last 30 years?"
Neil deGrasse Tyson, the director of the Hayden, agreed that laser shows have not aged well. "The novelty of that as a technology is not really there anymore," he said. "Now you can buy a laser at the checkout counter at Kmart."
Much of the wow factor of the three-year-old planetarium, which replaced the original 1935 building, is supplied by a supercomputer that, among other attributes, harnesses 118 microprocessors. (The typical home computer has only one.)
Housed in two air-conditioned rooms adjoining the planetarium, the system can manage as much as nine terabytes of data - about 13 times the typical file size of a two-hour feature film projected digitally in a commercial theater.
The system is tied to two 24-channel digital audio players, hundreds of speakers and seven ultra-high-resolution video projectors trained on the inside of the planetarium's dome, which has a surface area of more than 6,500 square feet, planetarium officials say.
Dr. Tyson, an astrophysicist, said the enormous computational power of the planetarium's computer system enabled not only the modeling, mapping and vivid display of stars, planets and distant galaxies, but the processing and projection of any other data that can be represented in three dimensions.
Philip Alden Benn, one of 19 animators who helped create "SonicVision," said the animation that he and his New York-based company, Atmospherex, were responsible for - about eight minutes of the show - was exacting and exhaustive work. "It is a new format of entertainment," he said. "It really is an immersive experience."
To achieve the desired effects, he said, he experimented with various types of color and imagery that he felt worked best in a spherical environment. In a computer-generated environment, he projected images on a virtual sphere with a highly reflective surface. The result gave him a sense of how his animations would appear on the planetarium's dome, 75 feet in diameter.
"This is the first domed music show in the world," Mr. Benn said.
Anthony Braun, the executive producer of the Rose Center, who worked on the planetarium's two current space shows, "Passport to the Universe" and "The Search for Life: Are We Alone?" - said he had long been mulling the planetarium technology's pure entertainment possibilities. "We've been talking about it for a couple of years and developing the concept," he said.
Once the $600,000 project received the go-ahead from the museum administration early this year, said Chris Harvey, the show's creative director, he began searching for artists and animators with the skills and sensibilities he viewed as essential to it.
Oddly enough, he said, the music came first. While working with MTV2, Mr. Harvey said, he came to view Moby, who regularly incorporates high-tech themes and images into his music and videos, as the natural choice to mix the music.
"One thing that Moby did that I thought was great was that he picked up a certain quality that the dome has," Mr. Harvey said. "The quality of space is present in a lot of his musical choices."
Moby said the music for the show, which includes bits of songs by Coldplay, Radiohead, U2, the Flaming Lips, Queens of the Stone Age and David Bowie, was digitally stitched together with a computer and ProTools digital editing software.
He said he was enthusiastic about working with the museum. "I'm a dim musician," he said, "but whenever I get an opportunity to get involved in science, I do."
Once he had a mix that established a mood and narrative flow, Moby said, the music was transferred to the planetarium for storage in its supercomputer. (The same system will provide the playback, not unlike that on a college student's desktop PC but on an exponentially larger scale.)
With the music readied, Mr. Braun said, the project's artists and 3-D animators turned to creating images to accompany the peaks and valleys of the mix.
They were urged to have fun, but above all, Mr. Braun said, the creative team wanted the animators to take advantage of the planetarium's dome.
"The main thing was capitalizing and maximizing that feel of immersion that you get in the dome," he said. "Everything that we visualized and talked about initially was all geared toward giving the viewer the feeling of being steeped in the image and flying through the image."
But when the planetarium's creative team started crunching dozens of terabytes of data into the finished show, a process that animators call rendering, its members realized that the hardware was not up to the task: the Hayden's 78-processor system was taking too long to render the show. So Sun Microsystems donated racks of servers, adding 40 high-speed processors to the planetarium's 78, along with accompanying software, in a $1 million contribution.
About a dozen domed planetariums in the United States and six abroad have similarly powerful computer-driven audio-visual hardware, said Anne Canty, a museum spokeswoman. But the Hayden is the first to create such a technologically advanced program simply for entertainment, said Mr. Gordon, the museum's vice president, adding that there were plans to sell the program to be shown in other planetariums.
That prospect gratifies Alex Coletti, the executive in charge of programming and production for MTV, who worked with the planetarium's staff on "SonicVision."
"I hope it goes to other locations all around the world so it can get before as many people as possible," he said. "It is a group experience. That has always been what music is."
Carl Goodman, a curator of digital media and director of new media projects at the American Museum of the Moving Image in Astoria, Queens, suggested that the show represented a broader reality than the communal music experience. From the design of telephones to highways, "today we live in a world that is rendered by computers in one way or the other," he said. "The same sort of software we use to create computer animation we also use to model, simulate and, in a sense, understand our world.''
"It would be kind of odd," he said, "if something like this was not happening in the planetarium."