March 3, 2006 12:07 PM PST

Immersing in DomeFest video

OAKLAND, Calif.--If Alex Barnett has her way, the traditional two-dimensional video presentation on a pull-down screen won't be long for this Earth.

In its place will be high-quality digital projections on a new kind of large dome that's increasingly found in planetariums. And on Thursday and through Saturday, Barnett, the executive director of the Chabot Space and Science Center here, is showcasing the best of this relatively new kind of presentation at DomeFest.

For now, few of the presentations created for this kind of environment are meant for businesses, though Barnett said there's no reason they can't or won't soon be. But most are currently designed to be learning tools, and she said presentations on domes are ideal for education.

Presentations on domes "engage your peripheral vision and give you an emotional response which you can't get from 2D," Barnett said. "The advantage of that in educational terms: Inducing an emotional (response) can help someone remember something. It is an effective tool for exploring how you can get your message across."

Chabot has an ultra-high-definition immersive, 70-foot dome screen. There are now about 175 of these so-called "fulldomes" around the world, each utilizing digital sound and six high-brightness, high-contrast digital light processing projectors.

At its event, Chabot is showing the winners of the first-ever DomeFests, two competitions that were hosted by the LodeStar Astronomy Center and the University of New Mexico, Albuquerque, in 2004 and 2005.

But while there have been two previous iterations of the DomeFest concept, Barnett and her organizing partner, LodeStar director David Beining, are hoping that bringing it to the Bay Area will open up the medium to a much wider audience.

"We wanted to use this incredible tool to show people what's possible," said Beining at a DomeFest press preview Thursday. "What else can you do with this dome? What talent and what expertise can we connect with in the Bay Area? We want to kick-start that, and to show it to the community in the Bay Area."

At the preview Thursday, a group of about 30 people sat in Chabot's planetarium watching a series of about 20 presentations from the 2004 DomeFest. As the room darkened, the entire curved ceiling was filled with the image of what appeared to be a giant black hole. But inside, a vibrant and active collection of three-dimensional objects floated to and fro.

The next presentation was a trailer of a film called "The Stars of the Pharaohs," which took viewers on a fast and furious tour of Egyptian monuments, inside various temples and up through the roof of one and into the sky.

Another impressive example was "Jellies," during which the entire dome filled with undulating jellyfish. It felt like being surrounded by the fish while at the same time remaining safe from their stings.

In any case, DomeFest is an early step, Barnett suggested, to using fulldomes in business, for games and of course for education.

For now, though, she said, the biggest challenge to taking the medium beyond education is that the domes are found only in planetariums or other science settings. But she said she envisions adapting smaller versions of the domes for business applications or even for use in people's homes.

"Because it's so immersive," she said, "it gives (people) a canvas that communicates in a way that a flat screen can't."

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