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StarRider Theater
at Adler Planetarium
by Rick Smith and Stephen R. Jones
(January 7, 1999)

During the past two years, the Adler Planetarium in Chicago has undergone a huge change with the addition of a 60,000 square foot Sky Pavilion. The "crown jewel" of this construction is the new Star Rider theater, from Evans and Sutherland. It is the first audience interactive, domed theater in the world! Here are our experiences when we previewed this theater on January 7th, 1999.

Imagine being at a theater, leaning back on a comfortable recliner and staring upward. As the program begins, the domed ceiling above you comes to life and you are immersed in a realistic night sky, much like many conventional "planetarium" experiences. The real magic begins when you start to travel through this "night sky" in a virtual tour of our solar system and beyond. Planets and spacecraft fly by in rich, textured 3-dimensional realism. The large scale of this theater, which engulfs your entire field of view, gives the perception that you are actually cruising through space. But the StarRider experience goes even further - it's interactive! Yes, you, along with nearly 200 other audience members, get to simultaneously travel beneath the seas on Jupiter's moon and through the canyons on the surface of Mars. I [Rick] have virtually flown to Mars before, (Comdex Report Fall 1992),but this was much more believable because of the large scale and its interactivity. This sense of "really being there" and "in control" made bumping into the canyon walls during a steep climb, on Mars, seem quite realistic. These unscripted moments made this a riveting experience.

Unfortunately, this galactic adventure was over too quickly. We did get the opportunity to "fly" this simulation, by ourselves, without any other audience members and it was quite realistic. It's no wonder that Evans and Sutherland makes many of the flight simulators for commercial aviation. Other people in the room, who were walking around, while we were flying, had no other visual references and commented that they felt uneasy - their minds had completely believed the experience as being real. What helps the StarRider theater set itself apart from other "infotainment" experiences, such as IMAX, is combining a large, seamless, high resolution screen (a 55 foot dome with 6 million pixels) along with interactivity. By having the audience and museum guide collaborate during each presentation to create a unique experience, StarRider is a great example of the convergence of theater, science and technology. It will be interesting to see how this new theater will be used in the future.

We experienced the dawn of an entirely new medium. It will take time to evolve more content and to understand the dynamics of audience interactivity, but we feel that StarRider holds great promise both as an educational tool and as a platform for other applications such as interactive movies and virtual "fly-throughs" of proposed buildings.

Quick Facts

  • 6 video projectors provide seamless blend to cover entire 55 foot dome which is inclined 15 degrees.
  • Theater is capable of displaying conventional video sections, star projections, vector graphics, "live" universe populated by 3D objects and interactive quizzes.
  • Interactive, real-time audience participation with 5-button control pads located in each armrest.
  • Digistar II, the latest Evans and Sutherland star projection system is part of the StarRider experience. It covers the ENTIRE 180 degrees of the dome and can project nearly 10,000 stars.
  • First Adler program is titled Journey to Infinity

    Pros
    Excellent, spatially rich sound (six channels) and 10,000 watts of Crown amplifier power.
    Illusion of 3D is created by the large dome
    Truly immersive experience
    Collaborative flythroughs and audience participation

    Cons
    Faint light leaks behind dome
    Occasional stutters (motion stops briefly) in heavy animation sequences
    Journey too short - could have explored for hours

    Final Thought: Unfortunately the StarRider theater is a combination of hardware and software that is too expensive ($2-3 million) for us to have at home, in our living rooms, but flying this system solo is the ultimate gaming experience.

    Copyright 1999 Rick Smith and Stephen R. Jones
    All rights reserved.

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