The 2011 State of the Dome Address
by Mark C. Petersen, Loch Ness Productions
A presentation for IMERSA Conference, Denver, Colorado, February 2012
© 2012, Loch Ness Productions
|As perspective for pondering the future of fulldome as a medium and market, it is useful to review its current state. Statistics drawn from Loch Ness Productions' DOME THEATER COMPENDIUM are presented and discussed, and provide some answers to the quintessential questions: "Who are we, where are we, and what are we doing?"|
Since its start in 1977, Loch Ness Productions has maintained a database of dome theaters around the world. We called them planetaria back then. In the '80s, I shared my data with the International Planetarium Society, and during my term as Treasurer and Membership Chair, I developed and grew their IPS Directory into an annual publication. After I left office, the IPS publication languished for a time, so Loch Ness Productions started publishing its own version, called the LNP Planetarium Compendium. It's evolved into what is now called the Dome Theater Compendium, and in recent years, I've been publishing useful subsets of the Compendium online. In this way, Loch Ness Productions can share what it knows with the world.
Just go to the Reference section of the Loch Ness Productions Web site, and select Fulldome Theaters.
There is the usual address and contact information, dome sizes, seating arrays, projector systems, and attendance reports. And there are many other features, such as Skype-able phone numbers and links to the fulldome projector manufacturers. The raw data are all there, for anyone and everyone to view.
There aren't any tabular summaries of the data online (that's a feature included in our commercial product). But, anyone dedicated enough could comb through the pages and compile summaries themselves.
In this presentation, I'll do just that, to give a "snapshot view" of the online listings as they existed at the end of 2011 (or more accurately, in January, 2012, when I compiled this analysis). I've made similar data analyses in previous years, and I'll compare those numbers with this year's tallies.
There is one "summary" feature visible online: the total number of listings. You'll find entries for 938 locations. I keep track of American figures separately from the international numbers. A little under half of the total are here in the U.S.; the others are in all the rest of the countries of the world combined.
Compendium Data Summaries
Looking at the some of the summary tables, we see that — in terms of number and size of domes — larger domes predominate internationally, while mid-size domes are more plentiful in the U.S. With mid-to-large sizes, tilted domes make up half the count of each category. Smaller sizes, not so much. Nigglers may note that the total count here is higher than the listed locations. That's because there are some places that aren't currently active, or have requested that their information not be published online, such as those in private homes. I'm including them in the aggregate totals.
More seating configurations are front-facing over concentric, by a substantial percentage. It would be nice if there wasn't such a large "Unknown" category, but I suspect that if I researched it, the results would fall similarly divided into the categories we do know.
The overwhelming majority of theaters are associated with some form of educational or cultural institution — a school or school district, a university or college, or a museum or science center. Even in the "Private/Commercial" category, many are individuals who own portable domes they take around to schools and such. And those operated by governments or cities tend to be run as educational institutions.
I mentioned this last year: another overwhelming statistic is that most of the theaters I list have the word "Planetarium" in their name, or call themselves "star theater" or "space theater" or use some form of "galaxy" or "cosmos" or other astronomically-associated tag. So show producers evaluating fulldome as a "market" for their content might want to keep in mind that one needs only the fingers on three or four hands to count the world's fulldome theaters that may not have astronomy education as their primary mission. The question comes up continually, especially from those outside the field: "Why isn't there more non-astronomy content?" The answer is obvious.
Since 1990, I've made an "Annual Attendance Projection" for all dome theaters, classic planetarium and fulldome. These are also posted as articles on the Loch Ness Productions Web site. When I set a filter for only fulldome theaters and run the program, I come up with an estimate of 45 million visitors annually to all theaters worldwide. But there are many, many caveats with regard to this 45 million number. I explain them and the methodology used to estimate this figure on these Web pages:
Perhaps of real significance is the "Average" column. We can safely say on average, for any given dome size, how many people a year are likely to sit under it.
The Projector Systems
I tallied the number of fulldome projector systems in the listings. I counted 1064 this year, more than three hundred more than last year. Apparently, the economy is not in such sorry shape as we've been hearing, at least in the fulldome world. That's almost one new fulldome system out there... every day. The pace of growth is remarkable, to say the least!
A growing percentage of the listings are the single- or dual-projector systems, displaying movies with less than 2K resolution across the dome. That percentage has been increasing. In the fulldome world of today, the little guys are the biggies.
Then, I sorted the projector systems by their makers to get an idea of whose systems are the most popular.
Evans & Sutherland and Sky-Skan continue their one-two position, with E&S growing their lead in installation numbers over the last several years.
Actually, both their totals are a little on the low side in my figures. In Asia, GOTO markets their fulldome system as the VIRTUARIUM, which is actually E&S's Digistar, rebranded. And Konica Minolta does the same with SkyMax, which is really Sky-Skan's fulldome system. So the total remains the same, but the numbers per manufacturer can shift a little.
The validity of the numbers for the major hardware manufacturers should be pretty good; most of them provide their installation lists directly to me. But such is not the case with some of the portable manufacturers. In my Compendium, listings need to have a valid mailing or street address for me to include them. I only list places that I can point to and say they actually exist, right here.
But Digitalis Education Solutions has a policy about not releasing their customer information. While I count 135 with addresses, they've told me there are over two hundred thirty more systems out there that I don't have addresses for. That would make Digitarium by far the most popular fulldome system in the world. ePlanetarium tells me they've sold more than 150 systems; I have addresses for 83. Anecdotally, I've been told the number of Science First's Digital StarLabs could be triple what I list.
Then there are the home-built systems, usually the spherical mirror types; I lump them into the "Custom" category. There are dozens — maybe hundreds — around the world. We don't know for sure. It's such a simple concept — and relatively inexpensive to setup — that in many cases people just make their own and start using them. They don't buy from a major planetarium vendor, so no one knows! We often find out about them by accident, or when they call shopping for movies.
So if you take these unlisted systems into consideration, the total number could well be north of 1,400. And these unverified systems are all the lower resolution types. Stated more obviously, three out of four fulldome systems in the world today are less than 2K. There may be a lot of buzz about ever-increasing resolution numbers, but the reality is that the majority of the fulldome systems out there are relatively low-res.
Yes, I do include portables in the FULLDOME THEATER COMPENDIUM; they're a significant demographic in our field. It may be a philosophical discussion point about whether an inflatable dome without seats qualifies as a "theater". From Loch Ness Productions' viewpoint, if a system can show our fulldome videos on its dome, it counts as a theater!
So, what are people showing on their domes? We include Web sites in the Compendium listings, so Carolyn and I spent several days Web surfing. We went to each and every Web site we had links for, and did more than 500 Google searches for URLs we didn't have. Yes, at Loch Ness Productions, we are gluttons for punishment, it would seem.
As in previous years, many of our Web searches turned up nothing. More than 400 theaters don't even have Web sites that we could find. Of those we did find, only 38% listed their show offerings or schedules. From this, one could deduce that two-thirds of all fulldome theaters do not present commercially-distributed fulldome videos to the general public. Many planetarium facilities only present planetarium programs — star talks and astronomy lectures. Many theaters in educational institutions don't offer regular shows to the public. So in terms of judging the potential market for show distribution, this should give producers some food for thought.
This year, we found 356 theater Web sites that did list shows. Some only display the "current feature", while others apparently offer every show they're ever bought. Several facilities have more than 25 shows on tap; we stopped counting once we got to 15. One cannot easily judge "what's hot and what's not" from such listings. Some shows are listed as "for school groups" or "by request". Still, they're offered.
We found a total of 1159 shows mentioned. That's a lot of Web surfing! There were 167 unique show titles. 221 is our count of the total number of show titles commercially available. You can also see this on the Loch Ness Productions Web site as the Fulldome SHOW Compendium. (This is in addition to the Fulldome THEATER Compendium). We list every commercially-available show we know about; you can sort by Production Year, Duration, Show Title, and Producer. There's even an explanation of why Loch Ness Productions provides all info about our "competition".
So what did we find?
For the third year in a row, the most frequently mentioned show was Imiloa's "Two Small Pieces of Glass". I think this proves that when you give away a show for free, people will run it. It's also included by many hardware vendors with their new fulldome installations, especially portables.
Moving up to the number two spot was Mirage3D's Dawn of the Space Age. Denver's "Black Holes" show maintained its number 3 slot, and Clark's "Secret Of the Cardboard Rocket" retained its popularity. Many of the popular titles from previous years are still found in the Top 10 again. This year's survey took place in January, so that could account for the decrease in listings of Loch Ness Productions's holiday favorite Season of Light; nobody runs Christmas shows in January.
What I find significant is that many of the most popular shows were produced five or more years ago. They've been around for a long time, and as more theaters are installed, they continue to build in popularity. It reflects the nascency of the fulldome medium. These shows will be the "timeless classics" of the future; they're the popular titles already, years after they were produced. Unlike conventional cinema, or even to an extent giant screen films, where a title runs for a few weeks, and then they bring in the next one, these fulldome shows have "legs"; they'll be shown to more and more audiences over the coming years. New titles may enter the market, but they augment the repertoire, they don't supplant the existing titles.
As I did with the projector systems, I then sorted the show titles by producer.
Both Evans & Sutherland and the Houston Museum of Natural Science offer more than 18 titles each, so it's no surprise their shows are found mentioned so often on theater Web sites. However, those titles are often bundled with hardware installations (Houston's shows included with ePlanetarium); they may or may not reflect actual sales.
What I find significant is the rise of Mirage3D to second place. They only offer three titles; they're not bundled with any hardware installations; the customer has to make the effort to buy them, and in the case of Natural Selection, it's not exactly inexpensive. Yet Mirage3D's work is the fulldome world's second most popular, for 2011, and it wasn't handed to them. Congratulations are in order to Robin Sip and his crew; he's earned it.
Clark Planetarium, the National Space Centre in Leicester, and Spitz continue strongly. Loch Ness Productions descended a little bit in the ranking, and perhaps one of the reasons why is that we haven't come out with a new title of our own since 2009. We need to get to work. I should mention that we are happy to accept commissions.
Finally, I'd like to mention a feature of the Compendium on which I've worked particularly hard. I've researched latitude and longitude coordinates for each fulldome theater, and you can select the Google Earth link in the Compendium listing to go there using that application. You can also download FULLDOME.KMZ from the Compendium home page — which has Placemarks for every theater on the globe.