Dr. Jenny Shipway, Head of Education & Planetarium at Winchester Science Centre, UK
Winchester Science Centre and Planetarium delivers a mixed programme of live shows and fulldome films to approximately 100,000 visitors each year. Target audiences range from 4 year olds to adults, including public and schools, with most attendees visiting as family groups. It is important therefore to have different shows to serve these different groups, and also offer to offer variety to repeat visitors within a group to encourage re-visits.
High quality fulldome films provide wildly different experiences but are understandably expensive to licence, meaning that creating variety in live, real-time shows is very attractive. A single presenter can deliver a number of different shows throughout a year for the cost of their salary (including development and training time).
The Main Challenges
There are two main challenges involved in expanding a public live show offer:
The first is to ensure quality; frequently changing shows mean poorly-practiced shows. For a skilled presenter, learning how to deliver a show ready for public delivery is only the beginning of a journey which will include development of language and style to create a truly high quality offer.
The second challenge is to ensure that, despite being produced using the same real-time system, the shows look distinct. For instance, any Uniview show involving flights between solar-system planets will have very similar visuals for these sections. How can we ensure the audience member feels they are not just seeing a slightly different version of a previous show, especially if the shows are running on the same day?
At Winchester Science Centre, the issue of same-day variety has been managed during holiday periods by having two live shows on offer, one being a traditional-style Night Sky show appropriate to the season, and another being a Flying Through Space show. It is finding variety within the latter that proves the challenge.
To an extent, limiting the areas of space which explored is a solution. For instance, contrasting a Solar System show with a Universe show. However, to ensure a rich variety of 3D imagery within each 30 minute show, it is necessary to use wide parts of the virtual environment each time.
Winchester Science Centre and Planetarium
This is a self-imposed problem as the Science Centre is keen not to use the planetarium as a large Powerpoint theatre, and so minimises use of 2D content wherever possible. It would be a fine thing to have a live Mars show, but the variety of 3D visual imagery appropriate to family audiences (i.e. to hold the interest of children from +5 years) is not enough to support this at this time.
New Content is Key
Largely, development of new shows is led through new content becoming available on the Uniview system. Upgrading to Uniview 2.0 will allow integration of film clips which will open a new box of possibilities (although there an issue lies in having visual continuity, eg having similar star appearance in different clips, to avoid a patchwork look).
Example: Solar System Shows
The Science Centre’s original The Planet Show is the classic flight between the planets, with the presenter free to some extent to choose which imagery to use and which topics to address at each planet. This show slowly evolves in response to new science and imagery.
More recently, when a wide enough variety of 3D models were available, a Spacecraft show was developed. However, as this was necessarily still a Solar System show where planets would still be seen/mentioned and the gross structure of the solar system shown, visual contrast was attained by creating a spacecraft dashboard visual at the front of the (tilted) dome, with a small amount of 2D imagery integrated into the show by appearing to be displayed on panels raised out from within this dashboard (this by using MediaContainers in Uniview). In this way, the 2D images were given a 3D presence within the virtual environment. Although other Uniview content was broadly similar to The Planet Show, the general staff response was that it was a marked contrast and something that felt very new.
Another Solar System show with a markedly different feel is Space Mission for Santa – a fun Christmas show where the presenter talks to Santa before taking the children to help on a mission to save Christmas. This show uses flat images (largely transparent) that create a heads-up-display that pops up during the mission to keep track of the adventure and display clues. It also uses flat images integrated into the 3D environment which children grab out of the sky (and adults – we need your help too!), the image vanishing as they grab it.
With a lot of pointing, calling out and bad jokes, the style is very different from other shows. The intention is to create other, similar, seasonal shows in future. The challenge here is to find appropriate presenters who are not embarrassed to whole-heartedly embrace the silliness! The upgrade from Uniview 1.5 to 2.0, with the new panel-driven user interface, is hoped to allow recruitment of specialist presenters with a performance background who are able to make the most of the format (this show requiring limited astronomy knowledge, which can be scripted and quality-checked).
Example: Saturday Night LIVE
The most difficult project in terms of creating variety is Saturday Night LIVE, where a new show is developed each month on topics ranging from Astronavigation to Rocky Planets to Galaxies. This does necessarily result in shows that use additional 2D imagery to communicate each topic to a greater depth, although new 3D visuals are also created. These new visuals are then later available for use in future public shows, making the development of content for these shows an investment rather than a throwaway. Still, shows are re-created each year on similar topics to make this project financially viable.
Greater/easier control of images and integration of video in Uniview 2.0 is hoped to further inspire ways of giving a different visual feel to shows, from a new, live show aimed at pre-school children to serious astronomy presentations for adults. But without ever forgetting that the audience are here to experience the planetarium, and not a Powerpoint presentation!
Author of this post
Dr. Jenny Shipway initially worked as a biochemist before moving into Science Communication in 2003. She joined the Winchester Science Centre as Planetarium Manager in 2007, and today she is positioned as Head of Education & Planetarium. During her years at the WSC she has managed the Cell! Cell! Cell! fulldome film project and has acted as script consultant on a number of other shows, including We Are Stars. As the driving force that Jenny is, she served as Treasurer and then President (2011-2014) of the British Association of Planetaria, including a role as UK/Ireland rep on the International Planetarium Society council.