360 degree cinema
In the midst of the movie

The future of cinema in hemispherical projection
The future of cinema in hemispherical projection | Photo (detail): © www.softmachine.de

The cinema of the future invites the viewer to do more than look. Full-dome projections and virtual reality technology immerse him in the world of the film. But the 360 degree experience is still only in its infancy.

In 2006 you could see only stars in the planetarium of the German Museum in Munich. The night sky was projected as realistically as possible from a slide onto the inside of the dome. “Today, we tap the full range of computer-generated content”, says Gerhard Hartl, curator of astronomy. Because of their domes, planetariums have become attractive for producers of what are called “fulldome” movies; requests for their use are increasing. The spectrum ranges from nature documentaries to elaborate animated films, from graphics set to music to feature films. Six powerful digital projectors, which the planetarium purchased in 2015, together generate a 360 degree panorama onto the dome. “There are no spatial constraints anymore as in traditional movie theatres”, explains Hartl. “The viewer can see the film all around him.”

The planetarium as dome cinema

Currently, the animated film Limbradur und die Magie der Schwerkraft (i.e. Limbradur and the Magic of Gravity) is being shown at the planetarium of the German Museum; it is being premiered in the dome on the occasion of the 2016 Munich Children’s Film Festival. Limbradur tells of the journey of a young boy in space. The film runs forty-five minutes, but it took the entire night to feed it into the digital system. “The quantity of data comprises half a terabyte; the development of such a film takes up to one and a half years”, says Hartl.

In spite of this, Limbradur producer Peter Popp sees the future of cinema in hemispherical projection. Popp, who has a doctorate in economics, founded the global company Softmachine in Munich in 2001. In 2004, he already produced his first fulldome work: the animated film Kaluoka’hina – Das Zauberriff (Kaluoka’inha – The Enchanted Reef), which was premiered at the Hamburg planetarium. It was the first work that employed 360 degree technology to tell a story.

Decelerating the image

At that time there were only 90 fulldome cinemas worldwide, mainly planetariums and scientific centres. Today there are more than 2,000, of which only about thirty are in Germany. “But the market is constantly growing” – of this the pioneer Popp is convinced. Not least because of technological progress, which today has made possible, for example, a much higher image resolution than in his early days as a producer. “The 360 degree cinema is a completely new medium, which has nothing more to do with the flat screen”, emphasizes the producer. “The effect is incomparably more intense.” Also because the technology exerts an influence on the narrative style. “We’re experiencing a deceleration of the image”, says Popp; “there are fewer cuts, with the result that the active viewer can decide where he wants to direct his attention”.

More intensity with the same content

As to content, fulldome cinema is not the making of a revolution. It creates new perspectives on old material. The same applies to virtual reality cinema, which also offers a 360 degree experience, though here the viewer does not move in a dome but wears “VR glasses”. Compared to fulldome projection, this technology is still in its infancy, but is also developing rapidly. Viewers who watch films using the commonly available VR glasses, however, often complain of nausea or headache.

In the spring of 2016 the Dutch company Samhoud Media of the entrepreneur Jip Samhoud tested the German market with, among other products, a temporary virtual reality cinema in the Platoon Kunsthalle in Berlin. Thirty stations showed the short documentary Clouds over Sidra, which transports the viewer to a Jordanian refugee camp. Horror movies were also on the programme – a genre that Samhoud-staffer Christine Hogenboom thinks is particularly suitable for creating immersive experiences: “Stepping into a haunted house in virtual reality gets under your skin quite differently from in a normal movie theatre!” She refuses to accept the objection that the original cinema experience gets lost in immersion in the hermetic world behind the VR glasses: “You still have the common experience, about which you can talk after the film”.

Visualization of past epochs

360 degree technology benefits not only entertainment; it also plays an increasingly important role in science. Christoph Anthes, head of the VT team at the Leibniz Research Centre in Munich, works on virtual reality scenes through which you can move freely. For this he uses a five-sided projection installation that is employed in the field of data analysis. Data sets are visualized in such a way that you get a vivid impression of them “as in a 3-D movie” and gain the feeling “of being able to move round an object in space”, says Anthes. The technology can be applied to various fields of research “ranging from archeology to zoology”. In one project, for example, a fresco-decorated grave chamber from the period around 475 BC at Karaburun in northern Lycia (today in southern Turkey) was digitally restored. 360 degree projections make the chamber and its wall paintings come alive in different perspectives and from different angles.
Curator Gerhard Hartl hopes that the scientific field will not be completely lost sight of. He looks upon the development of planetariums in the direction of so-called “media domes” with mixed feelings: “A planetarium is there to explain astronomy”. And for this, in Hartl’s opinion, only a limited degree of digital progress is needed: “The starry heavens can still be represented best with the use of an analogue projector”.