The cinema of the future?

Twelve projectors and a 450m² spherical screen: This is Space 360 in Gwangju, South Korea, the world’s leading hemisphere theatre. Audience members don’t just watch – they take flight!

Bühnentechnische Rundschau

Gwangju is a city with over a million inhabitants at South Korea’s southwestern-most tip. The name roughly translates as ‘land of light’ – an appropriate site, then, for the world’s newest hemisphere cinema. The shiny, silver globe that houses Space 360 is incorporated into the Lucerium theme park and part of the National Science Museum. Uniquely, it features not only a horizontal 360° sphere but also a vertical one. Visitors take their places on a transparent catwalk that projects into thin air; the film is projected all around them, both below their feet and above their heads.

Standing in the middle, every point of the dome – above and below, to the right and left – is six metres away. The audience remains standing with only a railing to hold on to. Before the projectors are switched on, a warning announcement is played: “If you feel dizzy, hold tight to the railing. If you need to vomit, please raise your hand and we will interrupt the showing. And take care not to drop anything. It would be difficult to retrieve an object from below.”

One might think that the days of immersive cinema-domes are counted without ever having really dawned, especially as technical innovations in the field of virtual reality mean that an all-round experience can be achieved even with light, portable devices. But hemisphere cinemas have certain advantages which are sure to give them a future, despite their predominantly non-commercial use. Most, including the one in Gwangju, serve an educational purpose and show short, informative films. Indeed, with its audience capacity limited to 40, Space 360 is clearly not designed to be commercially competitive. That is why most hemisphere cinemas are incorporated into futuristic technology parks or fun parks, designed to bring arts and sciences to the public. 
The dual fulldome in Gwangju calls for specially tailored input. No coincidence, then, that the state-run Korea Hydro & Nuclear Power Company funded its construction; Space 360 is operated and financed by the Ministry for Science. The two short films currently showing there were made by the Korean animation film producers Redrover. 

In March 2017, the Front Pictures team hired to design the projection system visited the construction site in Gwangju to check the dimensions and prepare installation. In June, the projectors, cables, and server rack were installed. Next, an auto-calibration system was devised and set up, material tests carried out and the staff in Korea trained. 
By autumn 2017, the facility was up and running. It is accessed via a ramp that curves right around the globe, leading to the entrance. That is not halfway up the sphere, as one might expect, but lower down so that the heads of the adult visitors are roughly in the middle. The projection sphere measures exactly twelve metres in diameter. 
Front Pictures is a Ukrainian firm of engineers, who sought the best possible arrangement of projectors by feeding 3D models with data from various models by four manufacturers on contrast ratios, resolution, lenses available etc. To ensure the central catwalk did not cast any shadows on the projection area, the best solution was to place the projectors to the right and left of the facing sets of entrance doors. Basically, there were only two possible positions to choose from, and most of the devices needed to be positioned at an exceedingly steep angle to the screen, causing record-breaking levels of distortion and difference in lightness and pixel density within the range of a single projector. Not only that, the space available for the devices was limited, as for the lenses. And when six devices are running simultaneously and close together, the operating noise increases significantly. In addition, care needed to be taken to prevent glare from the projectors. 
When projections are running, the picture quality in the cross-fade areas is monitored live by cameras installed between the screen and the exterior wall of the cinema. If the special picture-analysis algorithms report variations to the server, positions, lightness, and contrast are automatically adjusted. It is crucial in a dual projection set-up to adjust the lightness, especially, where the projection areas meet on each device. That is the key to a perfect showing.

Instead of controlling every projector via a dedicated computer, which would increase the scope for malfunctions due to multiple interfaces as well as incurring higher costs for material and electricity, a central Screenberry media server is used – Front Pictures’ own invention. But the main advantage of centralizing the projections on one server is that it prevents discrepancies in playing speed between the different devices. 
Signal processing occurs via three Datapath Fx4 display controllers, each connected to four projectors. The procedure of auto-calibration via camera feedback was devised by Front Pictures over the last nine years especially for the Screenberry server. The eleven loudspeakers and the subwoofers are controlled via an RME M 16 DA audio interface and an RME HDSPe MADI soundcard. 
In the event of a malfunction nevertheless occurring, the Korean firm Metaspace, representing Front Pictures in South Korea, will be alarmed. But so far, there have been no problems with the technology ever since the cinema’s launch in autumn 2017. True, it did not see much use in 2020: Space 360 was closed along with the entire museum for most of the year. An exception was made for BTR’s visit in July, which included a special showing. 
Korean summers are hot and humid, but the winters are cold and dry, even in the south of the country. Due to the extreme variations in outdoor temperatures, heat-sensitive systems were installed to permanently monitor the temperature and humidity inside the cinema and keep it constant – dampness would damage the devices – even through last year’s closure. 
Space 360 is also prepared for unforeseen events. If there is a power cut, a generator will automatically come on. Now, all the cinema needs is the public to return. It is prepared for that, too: To ensure that no visitors are injured due to wintry conditions, there is a heating system to de-ice the access path and forecourt outside the building.

BTR Ausgabe 1 2021
Rubrik: English texts, Seite 166
von Thomas Hahn

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