It’s cinema’s great creation myth: In 1896, the projected image of a speeding train caused frightened French carnival goers to leap out of harm’s way. Those early screenings are historical fact—the 50-second film, sensibly titled L'arrivée d'un train en gare de La Ciotat, was made by the pioneering Lumière Brothers—but the panicked reactions may be apocryphal. Still, the story persists—it appears most recently in Hugo, Martin Scorsese’s love letter to early cinema—because it neatly encapsulates how a passing gimmick redeemed itself through its near-magical ability to plunge us into other worlds.
Now a new technology, being developed on a sketchy block of downtown Montreal, promises viewers an immersive film experience to out-plunge the Lumières’ train or Scorsese’s masterful 3D. No glasses required. No chairs, either.
The Satosphere is an experimental cinema located in a building that began life as an actual meat market, before that particular stretch of lower Boulevard Saint-Laurent took a turn for the carnal. The shiny new glass façade stands in stark contrast to the neighbouring porn theatre and transvestite burlesque club, but what truly marks the Satosphere as a new kind of spectacle is the massive dome protruding from the roof.
Eighteen metres in diameter, the three-month-old Satosphere is a round cinema, but—unlike similar planetarium theatres of old—it uses a hi-tech network of eight video projectors and 157 speakers to completely surround (save the floor) up to 400 people with lifelike sound and images. The effect isn’t 3D in the comin’-at-ya! sense recently back in vogue. Rather, it gives viewers the sense of moving inside the images—even, during particularly kinetic sequences, verging on motion sickness.
“It’s like being in a transparent bubble that’s floating through an environment,” says Louis-Philippe St-Arnault, the director of production and immersive development for the Society for Arts and Technology, the digital arts research, training and performance centre behind the Satosphere. The 32-year-old started his career as a set designer for stage and film, but found himself increasingly drawn into the SAT’s science-for-art’s-sake milieu. Five years ago, he joined SAT full-time.
“People have made domed theatres before,” admits Mr. St-Arnault. “But, strangely enough, they still tried to make the viewer look only at the front, like in a regular cinema. We’re trying to move away from that by not having fixed seating. We want people to be able to walk around, to choose their point of view, both by their body position and what captures their interest.”
Two viewers standing back-to-back in the Satosphere would see, and possibly hear, completely different things, making the experience as much about what you miss as what you catch. Sound overwhelming? That’s kind of the point.
“Everywhere you look in the world, there’s too much information,” says Mr. St-Arnault. “If I choose to look in front of me right now, then I’m missing whatever’s happening behind me.” He turns around. “Now I’m missing something else. Nobody in the Satosphere sees or hears exactly the same movie.”
Researchers in the SAT labs spent three years experimenting with the best way to capture and project images. The process starts by creating 360-degree video footage, either by using a six-lens camera (similar to those used by Google to create its Street View maps) to record a real environment, or by computer modelling entirely virtual scenes. The footage is then rendered into a “flattened” image that is texture-mapped over the virtual surface of a 3D object—in this case, the curved walls of the Satosphere, but it could be any surface—making exacting adjustments to the image to compensate for any distortion that normally occurs during projection onto a non-flat surface. It takes about four hours to import one minute of raw footage, but editing, colour correction and other tweaks add considerably to the process; all told, it takes about a year to create two hours of polished video. Throughout the process, footage is test-screened in the laboratory’s miniature dome, which holds a handful of viewers. Once the video works there, it’s ready for the big room.
The Satosphere is actually two domes: an immobile one that protrudes through the roof, and the slightly smaller projection dome that nests inside. The projection dome is a steel frame panelled with thin sheets of perforated aluminum. (The holes, which prevent sound from echoing and distorting, account for almost a quarter of the surface area, but are small enough not to affect viewing.) Special paint prevents too much light from reflecting back from the panels (too much reflection would spoil the image on the opposite side of the sphere) while still allowing high contrast for the projections.
The eight projectors are grouped in pairs near the top of the dome. The highest projectors are angled down to cover the lower half of the screen; the lower projectors point up. Each projected image overlaps with the next by about a foot, but painstaking projector alignments, and a formidable rack of computers, make for a seamless 360-degree panorama that fills every millimetre of the room.
Every millimetre. That’s the important part.
What makes “the magic happen,” says Mr. St-Arnault, and distinguishes the Satosphere from old-school planetarium-style projection domes, is the high position of the projection dome’s equator, or its widest point, allowing images to be projected right to the floor. (The projectors are angled to prevent roaming audience members from obstructing the light beams.) The dome can be raised, and additional rows of panels added, to change the floor-to-floor curve from 180 degrees to a maximum of 230; the higher the equator, says Mr. St-Arnault, the more our brains are fooled and “the more immersive the space because it gives you a sense of having the horizon all around you.” (The Satosphere is a high-tech operation— Mr. St-Arnault will only say the price-tag is “millions”—in every way except one. Raising and lowering the dome is achieved through technology that wouldn’t be out of place in the girders-and-gears Paris of Mr. Scorsese’s Hugo: pulleys, chains and muscles.)
The Satosphere opened in October, 2011, with a performance called Intérieur. Live dancers, choreographed by Marie-Claude Poulin, moved among the audience and interacted with a two-hour video by artist Martin Kusch. (As if navigating through a dance troupe wasn’t enough sensory overload for audiences, a later performance called Salon de massage McLuhan, inspired by the legendary Canadian media theorist, incorporated narrative-appropriate tastes and smells courtesy of the adjacent “Foodlab.”)
Training artists to create more works for the space is a priority, says Mr. St-Arnault, but the SAT is also exploring non-art applications for the technology. The group has already begun brainstorming with Montreal’s Sainte-Justine children’s hospital (one possibility: a safe virtual environment for phobia patients), and Mr. St-Arnault can see architects using the technology to give clients “tours” of proposed buildings (or even to give neighbours an idea of how that new building might obstruct their views). Whatever the direction, he thinks interactivity will be key, with users one day directing the environment by using smartphones as a kind of virtual mouse.
Special to The Globe and Mail
Editor's note: This corrected version clarifies the process of developing footage.