Creating an Interactive Science Theater

ADLIP all-dome theater utilizes amiraVR graphics software
Hartmut Schirmacher

Protein Folding: Interactive illustration of a long chain of atoms folding into a meta-stable form, induced by forces between the individual atoms. The audience can participate in this process from any point of view inside or outside the animated protein.

Planetariums are a source of pleasure for large audiences of all ages. Watching star formations in the darkness of a large dome is an exceptional means of communicating the incredible size of the universe. However, an exciting and diverse program is needed to ensure high visitor rates. Furthermore, a planetarium is nowadays often integrated into a larger science or theme park, raising the demand to take advantage of the different kinds of content present in its vicinity.

Similarly, universities and other research-oriented institutions are seeking to use nearby projection theaters for communicating the results of their work to a larger audience. Here, installations such as planetariums act as very effective attractors. But how can a modern planetarium match all these requirements? The perfect solution for this problem would be to use digital data projection in addition to, or instead of, a classical star projection unit. The challenge in this case is to cover the complete dome (a hemisphere) with a sharp, bright, and seamless high-resolution image generated by a computer. Sophisticated projection and computer hardware as well as advanced visualization software is needed to drive this special data display.

Carl Zeiss Jena, makers of lenses and other optical equipment and builders of the first planetarium dome (1), recently introduced their ADLIP all-dome laser projection system (2). Using six or more laser projectors and a specialized soft edge blending unit, the ADLIP can cover a hemisphere of up to 24 meters in diameter with a seamless digital image. Color range, brightness, and sharpness produced by the laser projectors are stunning, and are far superior to that of CRT projectors, which represent the classical projection solution for curved screens. The ADLIP laser projection is an ideal fit for an all-dome theater.

Immersive Material Science: As an example from solid state physics research, the audience is taken on a flight through a so-called nano crystal structure consisting of approximately 350,000 atoms.

Together with their partners Zeiss and SGI, TGS offers a method of using the ADLIP all-dome laser projection system to turn a planetarium or dome into a multi-purpose projection theater. amira application software is developed for advanced 3-D visualization, data analysis, and geometry reconstruction. The software's most important fields of application are, among others, bio-medical, life sciences, geosciences, physics, and engineering. amiraVR is amira's virtual reality edition, which supports all kinds of display systems and hardware components required for virtual reality applications, such as stereoscopic viewing, tiled and curved displays (panoramic screens, domes), multi-wall displays (e.g. CAVE or HoloBench), head tracking, and tracked 3-D input devices.

At a recent demonstration in the Zeiss laser dome in Jena, Germany, use of amiraVR turned the projection dome into an interactive science theater. Running amiraVR on an SGI Onyx computer with six graphics pipes, all types of data and visualizations were displayed and manipulated in a common framework, with an easy-to-use interface and high-performance graphics output. The software was used to navigate and manipulate the virtual 3-D scene interactively during the show, as well as to create scripts that controlled and animated the demonstration automatically.

With help from amiraVR, users' datasets have been turned into interactive demonstrations. A complete portfolio of real-life application demos is available, ranging from molecular visualization and molecular dynamics, to such fields as neuroscience and surgery simulation, and also reaching astronomical scale with simulation data from astrophysics. All these examples are actual results from the work of different amira users worldwide.

Also, since amiraVR is an extended version of the standard amira software, existing users (e.g. scientists using amira to explore their 3-D data on their desktop) do not need to deal with new software in order to present their content in VR or in a dome. They can simply bring their data and their visualizations created with amira, load them into amiraVR in the dome, and present their work using the same tools as on their desktop. Even users working with other software in their lab can easily import their data and visualize it in a multitude of different ways.

amira and amiraVR support a broad range of 2-D and 3-D data types and file formats, including medical formats such as DICOM, 3-D microscopy formats such as Zeiss and Leica, scene model formats such as VRML and Inventor, CAD data as DXF and STL, formats used for 3-D scanning, air and fluid dynamics, and finite element data from numerical simulation packages. Furthermore, the amiraMol extension adds complete support for the visualization of molecular data, including direct support for the protein database and similar file formats.

View toward the future
There is a promising future for interactive science theater using large-screen projection theaters with advanced 3-D visualization software. Planetariums need it in order to offer a diverse and stunning program. Scientists want it to communicate their work to large audiences. Audiences desire it because it is both entertaining and educational.

Interactive exploration of a human skull reconstructed from CT scan data. Individual patient models like this are used for facial surgery planning and prediction of surgery results.

Have you ever dived into a molecular simulation running on a huge dome surrounding you, sitting between thousands of atoms encircling each other and buzzing around like stars in a micro-universe? Have you ever seen the fine organic structures of a fruit fly brain, originally half a millimeter big, zoomed up to ten or more meters size? Would you like to explore the incredibly complex structure of the capillaries in the human cortex? Do you want to search for oil in a large geo-science dataset, swim in a flow dynamics simulation, or explore the construction of the latest car model? Take a look at the closest science park or planetarium — you might find what you're looking for sooner than you think!

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Hartmut Schirmacher is amira Project Manager at TGS, Inc. He may be reached at