IMERSA Summit 2019 - RECAP

photo by Pavel Karas

The 10 year anniversary of the IMERSA (Immersive Media Entertainment, Research, Science & Arts) Summit was recently celebrated in a snowy Columbus, Ohio at COSI (Center of Science and Industry). This annual event brings together some of the most preeminent thinkers, creators, and producers in the fulldome (digital planetarium) and immersive media industries. The four day Summit features inspiring speakers, a carefully curated selection of fulldome films, cutting-edge live performances, insightful workshops, and a vendor session showing off the newest innovations in immersion. As an organization IMERSA works to create a supportive community for an international network of professionals creating large-scale immersive digital experiences. The Summit offers a time and space for the community to come together to share, brainstorm, inspire, and connect with the otherwise international community.

Keynote and Focus:

This year, the Summit hosted a special emphasis on immersive audio featuring a keynote by Kevin Bolen, audio designer for Immersive and Interactive Media at Skywalker Sound and ILMxLAB. In his position Bolen crafts immersive audio experiences for virtual, augmented, and mixed reality by bridging the gap between cinematic film sound and interactive audio. Some of the projects that Bolen has worked on include Ralph Breaks VR, Solo: A Star Wars Story 360, and Carne y Arena. During his keynote, Kevin discussed the many different aspects of creating immersive soundscapes for XR experiences and how the process differs from creating surround sound for traditional cinema. One point that stuck out was Kevin’s discussion of specific applications for various types of audio elements in terms of eliciting differing emotional responses when constructing immersive experiences (i.e. fully-spatialized sound effects are used to convey information about the viewers surroundings while other non-spatialized audio like music are utilized to elicit more of an emotional response.) By combining these elements in an immersive experience, a viewer can more effectively feel like they are part of the movie instead of just being an observer. This was illustrated with Carne y Arena (Virtually present, Physically invisible), a virtual reality installation directed by Alejandro G. Iñárritu which explores the human condition of immigrants and refugees. The piece includes both spatial effects like the sounds of helicopters flying overhead or police yelling, giving the viewer information about their surroundings, while the music and 2D dialog drive the emotional experience. Overall Kevin’s keynote was an enlightening glimpse at how audio is being used to not only augment but also create impactful immersive experiences.

Kevin Bolen also participated in an afternoon panel exploring the Future of Immersive Audio. He joined other leading immersive audio experts including Joel Douek (EccoVR), David Ledoux (Université de Montréal), and Marta Gospodarek (New York University) in a discussion around defining immersive audio, the direction the medium is heading, the challenges of working in that space, and hopes for future development. Each panelist brought their own unique perspectives to the table and inspired many audio based conversations among attendees. Some of the more perplexing developments discussed involved the potential for using machine learning to help create better algorithms for sonic spatialization and the new broadcast format MPEG-H which allows the transfer of spatial audio data to be independent from speaker location and orientation.

photo by Susie Luna Green

One of the other highlights of the audio focus was a 12.1 channel speaker array sponsored by Meyer Sound. For the first time, at any IMERSA Summit, 3D musical compositions were accepted as part of the submission process. Composer, David Ledoux, presented his piece Ville Aux Cent Clochers mixed for the non-traditional speaker array using the open source software Gris which is being developed in the lab where he works at the Université de Montréal. The piece used a collection of field recordings captured by Ledoux to explore the relationship of the Montréal’s soundscape and the omnipresence of cathedrals throughout the city. The piece beautifully blended musical elements with the recordings to create a surreal and powerful experience. You can listen to the stereo mix of the piece here.

Technical Innovation: One of the audience members made a comment stating ‘if we didn’t love the challenge we wouldn’t be here.’ The community of individuals that IMERSA attracts are people that are constantly pushing the boundaries, solving problems, and innovating new and inventive technical solutions. Every year it is thrilling to witness the achievements of these professionals. Ryan Jackson and his team at Full Circle Visuals are one of the many IMERSA presenters constantly innovating and pushing the boundaries of what is possible with their technology and the budget that they have. In their latest presentation Ryan discussed the process behind creating a 360º time lapse immersive experience in which an physical wheel could be used to move forward and backward through time. The complexity behind designing and building the camera system to capture 24 hour or longer time lapses in 360º was an intriguing and inspiring story to hear.

NEST Immersion, a collective of fulldome artists based in Quebec, hosted a workshop on a tool they are currently developing called NESTMAP. The tool allows anyone armed with a PC computer, a dome, some projectors, and a camera equipped with a fisheye lens to be able to quickly and easily map a dome for real-time performance. NESTMAP bridges the gap many artists face when trying to create work in domes, especially mobile domes which require remapping of the projectors each time they are set up. When done manually, this process can become extremely time-consuming and tedious. However, the NESTMAP software combined with the camera completes an automatic calibration process that generates a map of the dome in only minutes. The NESTMAP software is currently in the beta development stage and Nest Immersion is looking for testers to help in the final stages of development. If you are interested in being a beta tester you can sign up on their website.

Presenters: Each year IMERSA brings amazing and inspiring presenters and speakers to lead conversations on topics of immersion. One of the notable speakers this year was Michael Daut, IMERSA board member and fulldome producer. His talk titled “Creating Audience Impact Through Emotional Connection” discussed the importance of not only conveying accurate information in a way that the audience can understand it, but also in creating an emotional impact in order to inspire a greater and lasting impression. He used a variety of examples from beloved animated films created for traditional media to illustrate his point. The carefully chosen clips demonstrated the impact of emotionally driven storytelling. With the heritage of fulldome cinema being based in planetariums and science communication, often fulldome producers focus on the knowledge they are trying to convey over creating an emotional impact. However, Michael argued that even with education as the ultimate goal, by focusing on the emotional impact first the viewer will connect better with the content and gain more from the experience than if only presented with straight facts. This idea, while counter-intuitive to some current fulldome producers, seemed to be well received and we hope to see a paradigm shift where storytelling and emotional impact hold the same importance as factual information in the development of educational fulldome productions.

Fulldome Features: In addition to the inspiring speakers and presenters audience members also had the opportunity to view some of the best and most recent fulldome shorts and full length features. The subjects and styles of the shows ranged from science-based planetarium content to more abstract and artistic productions. This year’s full length features were submitted from around the world and included the titles Expedition Reef, Birth of Planet Earth, Mars 1001, Dimensions, Ningaloo, Star Maker, and Exo.

One of the shows that was well received was Expedition Reef produced by the team at California Academy of Sciences. This show reveals in exquisite detail the breathtaking beauty and biodiversity of coral reefs - and the scientists taking action to halt the destruction of them. The show was created in close collaboration with marine scientists using cutting edge computer graphics technology to recreate coral reefs, and the many creatures that live within them, in stunning and accurate detail. Along with the beautiful visualizations, the story and emotion behind the current issues related to coral decline was expertly captured by Tony Award winning narrator Lea Salonga.

Image courtesty of California Academy of Sciences

For those of us who have been in the scene for a while we all remember the stunning audio/visual collaboration of composer Johannes Kraas and Rocco Helmchen in their provocative exploration of mathematical algorithms in the fulldome production Chaos and Order. This year they graced us with their latest work, Dimensions - Once Upon Our Reality. This show melds the relationship between science and art in a stunning collaboration of audio and visual interpretations of some of the scientific constructs that surround theories of dimensions and reality. Described by Helmchen and Kraas as a “rollercoaster ride of visuals and music that takes audiences on a fascinating journey,” the film is broken up into sections with such topics as space and time, quantum mechanics, particle physics, and more. While narration is present in this film, most of the audio experience is led by Kraas’ lush musical compositions matched to Helmchen’s abstract and transportive visualizations of complex, often invisible, phenomenon and principles. After viewing this film audiences are perhaps left with more questions than answers; however, this is exactly what the creators intended. Through their film they hope to inspire thoughts of discoveries still waiting to happen while spurring the imagination to reach into unseen dimensions of our reality and beyond.

Fulldome Shorts: While the full-length features are impressive with their narratives and continuity, it is often the short films that give Summit attendees a glance into the future of fulldome production. Through stories of light and animation, experimental design, and heartfelt narratives storytellers from across the globe find new and innovative ways to use the dome as a means of expression.

Aaron Bradbury, a producer at NSC Creative, has been in the fulldome scene for awhile and never ceases to deliver breathtaking visuals and stories. His latest work, Vestige, was presented at this year’s Summit. Originally developed as a room-scale VR experience, a version of the piece was created for fulldome viewing and the IMERSA community had the pleasure of being the second audience to ever experience the fulldome production. The film, a true story narrated by Lisa Elin following the death of her husband Erik, is a powerful and moving story of the feelings and emotions surrounding the intense experience of losing a loved one.

One of the most inspiring things at IMERSA is to watch producers develop their ideas into shows. During the Summit a select number of producers had the opportunity to present a project they are working on during the Work in Progress session and receive written feedback from the audience on their ideas. About six years ago Ben Gondrez started DomeLab at the Otterbox Digital Dome at Fort Collins Museum of Discovery in Colorado. DomeLab offers an opportunity for members in the community to learn about and create fulldome content. This year one of his “DomeLabbers”, Adam Goss, presented the concept for a Work in Progress piece that he is beginning to produce, Piano. Armed with a short film that he created for fulldome describing the project and featuring some of the shots and 3D models he has already produced, Adam wowed the audience with the presentation, storytelling, and high production quality. We are all excited to see where this project goes.

Live Performances:

Each year IMERSA features a handful of live performances in the dome that tend to push the boundaries of what was thought possible. This year those experiences featured performance by J-Walt Adamczyk and Robot Koch.

J-Walt is a pioneer at the forefront of immersive and interactive design. He is one of the first artists to build a real-time performance system for fulldome and has been working in this arena since 2004. In his show Lucid Dreamscapes, He uses a custom built software and a specially designed instrument, that also constructed himself, to create magical and fantastical visual and sonic experiences. He guides the audience through new and imaginative landscapes by enacting a wizardly persona and using his strange and slightly bizarre instrumental device to paint images and sound onto the dome. He is an inspiration to all that follow in his footsteps and always a joy to experience.

photo by Pavel Karas

The award-winning producer and composer, Robot Koch, brought a new performance to the dome with his latest album, Sphere. The dome performance was created by Koch in collaboration with filmmaker Mickael Le Goff and premiered in Berlin’s Zeiss-Gross planetarium in October of 2018 during the Red Bull Music Festival. Koch’s atmospheric compositions along with Le Goff’s stunning visuals take the viewer on a journey through space and time. Alternating between dark synth-driven moments and lush string arrangements, the performance creates a sense of blissful lightness as the show carries the audience effortlessly through the careful melding of the cosmos and imagination.

Until Next Year:

Michael Daut made a speech during the 10-year anniversary luncheon. He stated that, “IMERSA is special”, and that it is. It is important to recognize that the IMERSA Summit is not a conference, it is a Summit. While sponsors are a part of the event, selling products is not a main goal of IMERSA. This Summit is about community. It is a space where artists, technologists, scientists, and institutions come together to share their love for fulldome and other immersive media formats. It is a space to laugh, love, inspire, and be inspired. This year marked our seventh year in attendance at the IMERSA Summit and we can tell you, without a doubt, that IMERSA has changed our lives in the most positive and miraculous ways. Through our presence and engagement with the IMERSA community we have met some of the most remarkable and talented people that we know, we have had the opportunity to work side by side with some of them, and have been challenged and inspired to build and create projects of our own, Dome Tour being one of them. So thank you IMERSA community, we look forward to seeing you all next year!

photo by Pavel Karas