The 2012 State of the Dome Address
by Mark C. Petersen, Loch Ness Productions
A presentation for the IMERSA Summit,
Denver, Colorado, February 2013
© 2013, Loch Ness Productions
Mark presenting at IMERSA summit
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?"

Loch Ness Productions has been involved in the dome trade for more than 30 years now. We primarily create and distribute planetarium stuff — shows, both fulldome and classic; we do music for soundtrack production; scriptwriting; imagery; software tools.

Since its start in 1977, I've maintained a database of dome theaters around the world. 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 the IPS Directory into an annual publication. In the '90s Loch Ness Productions started publishing its own version, called the LNP Planetarium Compendium. It's evolved into what's now called the Dome Theater Compendium, and it now has more than 3500 entries. 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.

One subset focuses on just fulldome theaters; we call it the Fulldome Theater Compendium. Just go to the Reference section of the Loch Ness Productions Web site, and select Fulldome Theaters.

You'll find the expected address and contact information, along with dome sizes, seating arrays, projector systems, attendance reports, Skype-able phone numbers, Google Earth placemarks, and links to the fulldome projector manufacturers.

LNP Fulldome Theater Compendium page

There aren't tabular summaries of the data online (that's a feature included in our commercial product). But the raw data are all there, for everyone to view. 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 and this can give us an overview of the state of the fulldome world.

Actually, there is one summary you can see online. Everyone wants to know the total number of listings. How many theaters are out there? Today, we have over one thousand locations listed online. Just under half of these in the U.S.; the others are in all the rest of the countries of the world combined.

I do include portables in the Compendium; they're obviously a significant demographic in our field. But does an inflatable dome without seats really qualify as a "theater"? My viewpoint is this: if a system can show a Loch Ness Productions video on its dome, it counts as a theater!

Theater Data Summaries

In terms of number and size of domes — larger domes predominate internationally, while small and mid-size domes are more plentiful in the U.S.

Figure 2. Theater count
Theater count

With larger sizes, tilted domes make up about half the count of each category. Smaller sizes, not so much. Of course, when you tilt a portable dome, it tends to deflate.

Figure 2a. Theater count - U.S.
Theater count
Figure 2b. Theater count - International
Theater count

For producers, it's always nice to know whether the audience is seated so they're actually facing where the action of your movie is. Fortunately, more seating configurations are front-facing over concentric (the carry-over from the classic planetarium) 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.

Figure 3. Seating configurations
Seating configuration

The vast 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.

Figure 4. Institution classification
Institution classification

An overwhelming statistic not apparent from the data 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 you need 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 — when it says PLANETARIUM on the wall outside, naturally you expect to find planetarium stuff going on inside.

Attendance Projection

Since 1990, I've made an "Annual Attendance Projection" for all dome theaters, classic planetarium and fulldome. These are also posted as articles on on our Web site. When I set a filter for only fulldome theaters and run the program, I come up with an estimate of 52 million visitors annually to all theaters worldwide.

Figure 5. Annual attendance projection
Annual attendance projection

But there are many, many caveats with regard to this 52 million number. I explain them and the methodology used to estimate this figure on these Web pages:

That's 52 million people, for an entire year, for every show in every fulldome theater in the world. For perspective — 52 million is less than half the number of people who watched the Super Bowl this year.

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 1,238 this year. That's 175 more than last year. The pace of growth is still remarkable, but in 2012, it slowed down by almost half compared to the previous year.

However, coming on more strongly than ever are the little guys. Fully three out of four systems listed online display movies with a maximum resolution of less than 2K across the dome. There may be buzz over ever-increasing resolution numbers, but the reality is that these lower-res, mostly single projector systems are the most plentiful, and on the rise.

Figure 6. Listed projector systems
Listed projector systems

Then, I sorted the projector systems by their makers to get an idea of whose systems are the most popular.

Figure 7. Projector systems by Maker
Projector systems by Maker

Evans & Sutherland continues to top the popularity of our online listings. The two major players in the small/portable market have moved up to second and third place, surpassing Sky-Skan for the first time since I've been keeping track.

How valid are these numbers? For the major hardware manufacturers, they should be pretty good. Some are quite diligent in providing data about their installations directly to me; with others, I have to beg. Now in the Compendium, I try to insure that only places that have a valid mailing or street address are listed. This is so I can point to them and say "they actually exist, right here."

But aren't there more out there in the world than are listed in the Compendium? Undoubtedly. But this is where we move out of the realm of cold hard data, and into aerial extrapolation. The number two entry in my summary is Digitalis Education Solutions. As I've said before, they have a policy about not releasing their customer information. While I documented 168 entries with real addresses this year, they've told me there are over two hundred sixty more systems out there that I don't have addresses for. That would mean there are 430 Digitariums out there, making them by far the most popular fulldome system in the world. Anecdotally, I've been told the number of Science First's Digital StarLabs could be triple what I list. But in these cases, I can't say for sure where these installations are, because I just don't know.

Then there are the build-it-yourself systems, usually the spherical mirror types; I lump them all into the "Custom" category. There are 91 with addresses online, but there may be hundreds more around the world. We don't know for sure, because 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 about them! We often find out when they call us shopping for movies.

The Russian Planetariums Association lists 41 planetariums on their Web site. But I've been told there are at least 500 fulldome facilities in Russia, Belarus, Ukraine, and Kazakhstan; 3-5 portable domes are sold each month, almost all spherical mirror types. Incredible, if not immediately verifiable. On the Fulldome Film Society blog, there are links to 9 Russian fulldome vendors. So if Russia has 500, it's reasonable to expect that China has many more. Sure enough, a quick search on Alibaba turns up dozens of Chinese portable planetarium makers and systems.

So if you accept the speculation, the total number in the world could well be north of 3,000. And these unverified systems would mostly be the lower resolution types. It might be that nine out of ten fulldome systems in the world today are less than 2K, and we don't know where two-thirds of them are.

The numbers are like dark matter — you know they must exist, but you can't point to them.

The LNP Fulldome Show Compendium

So, what are people showing on their domes? As I said earlier, when it says "PLANETARIUM" on the wall outside, you're going to find stars and planets on the dome inside. I don't see that changing anytime in the foreseeable future. It's no surprise, then, that the majority of fulldome shows have astronomical content, titles and themes. How many? What is the state of the fulldome show world?

To answer that, we turn to another free online resource that we've been providing since 2009: the LNP Fulldome Show Compendium.

Figure 8. LNP Fulldome Show Compendium page
LNP Fulldome Show Compendium page

It too is found under the Reference menu; it's the first item. We think our list is a pretty comprehensive picture of what's on the market today. And what's out there today are 271 show titles, from 82 different producers.

We designed the Fulldome Show Compendium for people who are shopping. Let's say you're looking for shows for little kids; sort our list by Audiences and they'll all appear at the top, with the little kid icons. Looking for the newest shows? Sort by Production Year. Looking for something that's under 20 minutes? Sort by Running Time. When a title catches your fancy, with one click you can be watching the preview. If it's a show that Loch Ness Productions distributes, one click will also show you the pricing. If it's a show we don't distribute, our links will send you right to the producer's site, and their online preview if its on YouTube or Vimeo.

Looking for a show that isn't about Earth or Space? Sort by Genre... but there aren't many in our list.

Figure 9. Fulldome Shows by Genre
Fulldome Shows by Genre

Even though the non-astronomy titles are basically in the noise, I thought I would see if there was a trend to be observed. Are more being made each year? So I sorted the Genres by their Production Year to find out.

Figure 10. Fulldome Genres by Production Year
Fulldome Genres by Production Year

And the answer is: no.

Show popularity

In previous years, we conducted a survey of what shows could be found on theater Web sites, to try to determine whose shows were the most popular — in other words, what is the state of the fulldome show market?

This year, we did not do that, for several reasons. The primary one is that we found we were re-visiting the same pages we had seen before. Unlike conventional cinema, or even giant screen films to an extent, where a title runs for a few weeks and then they bring in the next one, that's not what happens in the fulldome world. In most cases, when a planetarium or fulldome theater gets a show, it goes into the repertory and stays there for years. Many theaters detail their entire library online, with every show they've ever gotten. They may not be shown on a regular basis, but they're always on tap, available on request. This situation, along with the fact that often the theater operators don't sell tickets or keep track of attendance, is one of the main challenges facing those who are on a quest for that industry buzzword, "convergence".

Perhaps a better method for judging "what's hot and what's not" in the fulldome market can be devised for future State of the Dome addresses.

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