SPRING 2012: V.08 N.01: CAA Conference Edition 2012

Ethan Bach
Digital Dome, Department of Academic Technology and Distance Education, Institute of American Indian Arts: College of Contemporary Native Arts, Santa Fe, New Mexico.

The digital dome (also known as fulldome) is not just another immersive high resolution environment; it requires the artist, or producer, to completely reshape the way he or she develops and produces content within a multidimensional space and immersive soundscape. It’s as if the brain needs to be trained to awaken synapse connections to activate parts of the mind that have yet to be activated. It is as complicated as it is fascinating, and that is what continues to hold my interest and drive my research and artistic work.

Mandella, 2006, Louva Hartwell, still image. Photo by Ethan Bach. (Used with permission.)

Mandella, 2006, Louva Hartwell, still image. Photo by Ethan Bach. (Used with permission.)

Since beginning my work in the digital dome just a year and a half ago, I have become completely engrossed in furthering the development of this amazing digital landscape.  I have a strong commitment to giving artists and producers access to this spherical theater. The primary ways I promote creating for the dome are: creating accessible documents online, working directly with artists and researching and developing user-friendly tools for creating interactive works for it.

This article is to share information about the digital dome, show examples of work that students at the Institute of American Indian Arts have created and provide you with some resources on how to get started as a dome artist.

What is the digital dome?

Historically, geodesic theaters have been used for exploring the stars in the planetarium. It has not been until recent years that these theaters have become capable of presenting digital media.

This innovation brings new life to the medium providing artists endless opportunities for creation. Exploration of the digital dome as a medium for fine arts expression has just begun.

Digital Dome @ IAIA in “stored” position. (Used with permission.)

Digital Dome @ IAIA in “stored” position. (Used with permission.)

The digital dome goes beyond a three-dimensional space and works beyond high resolution digital media. The digital dome immerses the viewer in high-resolution spherical imagery and surround sound, creating a physical and emotional response. The environment engulfs the full range of human vision and sound creating a unique immersive experience like none other for the viewer.

Recent advances in technology allow for multiple projectors to blend together one high resolution image on the spherical screen and an artist can now use consumer-grade equipment to create a piece with enough high resolution works to present in this format. (Dome theaters range from 1k up to 8k resolution with the majority falling in the 2k or 4k range.)

Not only do recent advances in technology allow for multiple projectors to blend together one high resolution image on the spherical screen, but an artist can now use consumer-grade equipment to create a work with enough high-resolution works to present in this format.

There are over 600 (non-portable) digital domes throughout the world most of which are housed in science centers. The majority of content being produced and shown is primarily science-based and primarily intended for a fourth-grade audience. This use is beginning to change. More artists are seeing the digital dome as an opportunity for exploration within this immersive environment.

Zuni, 2011, Aaron Natewa, still image. Photo by Ethan Bach, (Used with permission).

Zuni, 2011, Aaron Natewa, still image. Photo by Ethan Bach, (Used with permission).

Here at the Institute of American Indian Arts, we have the world’s first fully articulating digital dome. Our dome is 24 feet wide by 12 feet high and hangs from the ceiling. This 8,000 pound structure is held up by four chains each connected to a motorized hoist. This one-of-a-kind construction allows us to place our dome at any angle from 0° to 90° and allows us to accurately create work for any dome in the world, as well as create unique works specifically for our movable dome.

What is a dome artist?

When I was first approached about directing the Digital Dome @ IAIA, I had no idea whether I would like creating works for the dome or if it would hold my interest. Turns out that the dome is so fascinating and dynamic that I have become rather obsessed with my work and it has changed the way I view immersive media work overall.

The fulldome offers a unique and challenging way to expand the boundaries of one’s own digital repertoire. I would not suggest any artist restrict their work to only creating in the fulldome environment. There simply are not enough opportunities at this time to sustain a career unless you want to do fulldome production for science centers. Creating dome-specific work is an expansive and challenging new way to conceive of multidimensional space, interactivity, and the human response.

Indigenous Students Working in the Dome

One of the biggest rewards from my work in the digital dome comes from working with the Indigenous students at the Institute of American Indian Arts. As a transgender person who was part of the Queer movement of the 1990’s and began making my own video work during that time, I know how important it is for an individual or people in an under-represented group to own their own images and to tell their own stories. Too often people who are part of the dominant group co-opt stories or identities within under-represented groups because they think it would make an interesting story. Often times, the story is represented inaccurately or in a way that is offensive to the under-represented group.

Beginning in spring 2011, students at the Institute of American Indian Arts began creating their own work for the digital dome through a four-week course, “Creating for the Dome.” In fall 2011, I taught “Digital Dome Production I,” a three-credit course where students produced their first dome shorts. Their work is significant not only in addressing the potential of the digital dome, but in the empowerment of Indigenous people working in new technology and taking ownership of their own unique voices. Below are three examples of the work to come out of this course.

IAIA student work samples

“Echo Canyon” by Bryan Akipa

Bryan Akipa is a member of the Sisseton Wahpeton Sioux Tribe, a digital media artist, champion traditional dancer and an award-winning traditional Native American flute player. His performances and artwork inform others about his history and heritage. In “Echo Canyon,” Akipa captures his experience in the natural acoustic environment with original photography and original flute music to create a beautiful soothing landscape for the digital dome.

Echo Canyon, 2011, Bryan Akipa, movie, (Used with permission.)

Akipa describes his experience as follows: “I hiked into the canyon with my quiver of flutes. The grandeur and intense hues of the canyon walls were awe-inspiring. I could feel the pure color from the steep rock faces, pouring into my eyes… I wanted to share the beauty of this place…”

With this project, Akipa and  I, along with the help of another student, Louva Hartwell, developed a new technique for navigating spherical panoramas using Apple’s Motion software. This work was inspired by xRez Studio’s ( dome show “Crossing Worlds,” which uses high-resolution panoramic imagery integrated into 3D software.

“Nanabush” by Joseph “Seph” Turnipseed

Seph Turnipseed is an Indigenous Latin American media artist. His work re-purposes pop culture media and stories to create new concepts ultizing his sarcastic sense of humor. In Nanabush, Turnipseed animated various found images from the web to tell just one of the many Indigenous stories of Nanabush (or Nanabozho), a trickster character that is the main character in many creation stories, particularly in Objibwa culture. In this story, Nanabush creates the Milky Way.

Nanabush, 2008, Seph Turnipseed, still image. Photo by Ethan Bach. (Used with permission.)

Nanabush, 2008, Seph Turnipseed, still image. Photo by Ethan Bach. (Used with permission.)

Nanabush called together all the birds and animals so he could give them their duties.  He told the beaver to build dams, the bees to make honey and the woodpeckers to play forest music.  And so it went until all the animals had been given their duties.  However, Nanabush forgot to give anything to Turtle for while the animals were all together, Turtle was swimming far below the lake surface and could not hear.  When Turtle found out that he was forgotten, he sank beneath the surface of the lake to sulk.  As days passed, Turtle grew angrier. One day upon seeing a passing canoe, he shot to the surface, upset the canoe and ate the surprised Ojibwa. The Ojibwa was very tasty and Turtle continued attacking canoes for many days.  Nanabush, upon hearing the strange events, suspected Turtle was angry with him, and decided to stop the strange behavior by making turtle do something useful. Nanabush took a bow and an arrow and, seeing Turtle, fired at him. Turtle dove into the water and was narrowly missed.  When diving, Turtle flung his tail up in the air shooting great a spray of water high into the sky.  Nanabush, using his magic, turned the spray of water into thousands of stars, thereby creating the Milky Way. [1]

Turnipseed used Adobe After Effects to animate the still images. With this project, Turnipseed researched and developed new techniques to format rectangular flat-screen landscape images into dome images. Not an easy feat.

“Behind Glass Doors” by Jessie Bennett

Jessie Bennett is a Navajo new media artist who is a full-time mother and full-time student. In “Behind Glass Doors,” Bennett grapples with her own parenting style and how to teach her toddler to learn by interacting responsibly with his surroundings.

Behind Glass Doors, 2011, Jessie Bennett, still image, (Used with permission).

Behind Glass Doors, 2011, Jessie Bennett, still image, (Used with permission).

Bennett tackles the subject using live-action footage. In the world of dome production, live-action footage is, for the most part, almost completely avoided. With the limited resolution of video cameras and with low contrast ratios, live action tends to look washed out and lifeless on the dome. However, Bennett successfully created her dream sequence scene using live composited images of video including stop-motion animation.

Digital video cameras with higher resolution on the prosumer level will expand of the types of work that can be shown on the digital dome. In the near future there will be even greater improvements in technology that will assist in dome production. In the coming months, I will be blogging how to create HDR (High Dynamic Range) video. This technology will greatly facilitate the use of live action footage for the digital dome.

The future of the digital dome

The number of digital domes around the world has increased from 200 in 2006 to over 600 today (not including portable domes). [2] [3] Domes have begun to attain popularity in the art world at least as an immersive performance space. An example of  artistic use of the dome can be found on YouTube: Nicolas Jaar and collaborators perform a live DJ, VJ, and dance performance at MOMA’s PS1 on February 15, 2012. [4] Although portable domes maybe used for various purposes that are different than non-portable domes, they still reflect the artist’s desires to work within this type of environment. I will focus on non-portable domes and where they are headed in the future.

The Digital Dome @ IAIA hangs from the ceiling and is the world’s only fully articulating dome. Photo by Ethan Bach, (Used with permission).

The Digital Dome @ IAIA hangs from the ceiling and is the world’s only fully articulating dome. Photo by Ethan Bach, (Used with permission).

In just a short period of time, I have witnessed the beginning of a shift in the way dome managers think about of their domes. There is an opening for artists and students in higher education and k-12 to begin to work in the science centers and utilize their fulldome facilities. I see a future of these spaces being open to workshops, art shows and live interactive public performances.

This immersive environment is just at the beginning of actualizing its potential as a medium for artistic expression. IAIA recently received a substantial grant to make the fulldome interactive by integrating sensors and developing custom-made software into the environment. The research is an extension of the University of New Mexico ARTS Lab’s (Art, Research, Technology & Science Laboratory) NSF funded research. Instead of the 6 projector fulldome running on 8 networked computers, it runs on one 12-core computer using two triple monitor adapters, high end graphics cards and custom-built software for warping and blending.

This research has already allowed for use of the dome as a gaming environment and we hope to open up the dome for more possibilities. We would like to create a dome video player that acts as a plug-in for multiple applications to include Max/MSP/Jitter, Unity game engine, Modul8, Vidvox and other interactive software applications. They would allow for interactive media artists to create in the dome without limitation.

Currently, one of the limitations in the dome is the process of slicing. Slicing is the process of taking an image sequence dome master and slicing each frame into 6 sections – one for each projector. Each individual computer assigned to a projector has just one piece of the entire image allowing for high resolution 30fps playback. This process of exporting a 4k image sequence and running through the slicing software, which could take days to process, is very tedious, to say the least. Even now, artists do not have to engage in this process as dome operators run all slicing for the dome, but a major problem with this process is that each dome has a different configuration, so every dome needs to be sliced separately. These differences make distribution very difficult. We hope to develop a system that can run a full 2k – 4k .mov file and not require slicing, which would save hours – even days – in the processing of programs for the dome.

How to Get Involved in Dome Work

If you are an artist interested in getting involved in creating work for the digital dome now is a great time to get started. It is my goal to bring the digital dome into the hands of fine artists and storytellers. Anyone can get started by taking a dome production course, soon be released in online workshops, apply to be an artist-in-residence or show work at one of the Digital Dome @ IAIA public art shows.

Steps for getting involved:

  1. Get yourself to your local digital dome theater. Be aware that many planetariums still operate with older equipment. Go to the theater’s website to see if it runs any shows that use animation. To find a theater near you or to see the specifics of the equipment of a theater check out:
  2. Follow my blog at I list some great tips and tools and will continue to make this a useful resource for artists, educators and producers. You will also receive updates on courses, online workshops, artist-in-residence opportunities and open calls for dome art shows.
  3. Don’t be afraid to experiment and submit to art shows even if you don’t have access to a dome.  There are ways to previsualize how your work will look on the dome. I have seen some very successful dome art created by artists who have never stepped foot in a dome.


1.  Baie D’Urfe’ Mohawk Wolf Cub Pack official Web Site, “How the Milky Way Sky Was Created”. [n.d.] (accessed February 12, 2012)
2. Ed Lantz “Digital Domes and the Future of Large-Format Film,” LF Examiner, Vol. 9, No. 8, (Summer 2006).
3. Loch Ness Productions official Web Site, “Fulldome Theaters”. [n.d.] February 12, 2012)
4. “Nicolas Jaar +1,” 02/17/2012, video clip, (accessed March 8, 2012)