Passport to the universe: Virtual reality at the Hayden Planetarium

Clare Henry saw the latest high-tech astronomical display at in New York and says scientists have taken art to new heights


New York

Video is now as much an art medium as oil paint, and as the Whitney Biennial 2000 demonstrates, internet art is merely the latest technology to be embraced by cutting edge artists.

However, keeping up with ever advancing high technology is not easy, and too many artists' videos still resemble a snowstorm, while TV left fuzzy black & white behind long ago, it is still beloved of many artistic folk.

Unable to share this attraction, for years, I've been waiting for some form of new technology to sweep me off my feet, aesthetically speaking, so it came as a welcome shock to find a truly riveting, visually stunning, spiritually uplifting, memorable experience, not in an art gallery, but at New York's brand new Rose Center Hayden Planetarium.

Interestingly, the public agree with me. It is the hottest ticket in town, a sell-out show booked up till September: only seventeen minutes long, but awe-inspiring in its intensity. Sitting in the hollow sphere, which seems to float inside a transparent glass cube, architecture by Polshek Partnership, you are whisked away at trillions of times the speed of light on a 500 million light years voyage, courtesy of the most advanced, powerful and highest-resolution virtual reality simulator ever built. The vision of a billions of stars, a gossamer Milky Way and panoply of nebulae as they whirl, explode and implode on this huge scale is both compelling and beautiful: abstract colour, shape and form orchestrated into a gripping three-dimensional map of our cosmos. It is a remarkable collaboration of science, art and computing at its visual, accessible best.

To create this amazing realist experience, a team of twelve was involved, including computer experts, astronomical artists and, believe it or not, a Broadway production team whose musical intervention, says astrophysicist Steve Soter, had a lot to do with the overall feel.

The initial dramatic opening view of our night sky as seen from Earth, which emerges from velvet black with a thrilling rush of stars, comes via a $8 million dollar Zeiss lens, the world's most advanced star projector, built to the museum's specifications. The Zeiss is capable of projecting 9000 stars onto the dome (there are 100,000 observed stars nearby and 100 billion available). These high intensity, white-light fibre-optic stars twinkle along with the sun and planets. This section combines an optical, mechanical device (the Zeiss) with data from NASA and drawings of the constellations by Scott Ewalt, a New York-based artist.

The view from Earth is followed by lift-off, sending viewers into space using seven projectors and laser generators activated by one of the largest supercomputers ever dedicated to virtual simulation—the equivalent of several hundred "laptops on steroids", to use the local lingo. Two astronomical artists, Carter Emmart and Dennis Davidson, choreographed the flight path through the firmament with its lacy tangle of bubbles and voids via powerful projectors. These illuminate the dome with digital virtual reality via 7.34 million pixels, so that one flies through a scientifically accurate recreation of the Milky Way Galaxy and beyond, past Jupiter and two of its moons, directly beneath Saturn and its vast rings, into the Orion Nebula and on to intergalactic space and back to Earth via a black hole. "Everything is scientifically accurate, based on information from the Hubble space telescope or Hipparcos Satellite except for the black hole," says Soter who co-wrote the script with Ann Druyan, Carl Sagan's widow, whose passion was to bring science to the masses. "We were careful to get Tom Hanks to say, 'No one knows what it looks like, so we are free to imagine.'" The script is in plain English, avoiding too many scientific terms and well narrated by Hanks.

The scale and ambition of the visual impact of the “Passport to the universe” show sets standards that artists should aspire to, however difficult to achieve. Of course these costs are huge—$210 million for the whole Rose Centre; no separate budget is available for “Passport to the universe”—while artists are hampered by low finance and less sophisticated software. More and more US and UK art awards are geared to technology-based projects but even here the reality of expense is often overlooked, However if you opt to choose to work with new technology, you have to accept that it costs tons of money.

The space show also puts us in our place. "He sets the sun and moon to be earth's lanterns for men, telling with mystery of man's beginnings,": so said Beowulf long ago, and things have not changed. Man's obsession with space continues—likewise artists' obsession with the new. At the Hayden Planetarium scientists have helped artists take visualisation to new heights.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Passport to the universe'