The Wonder Dome: Embodied, Interactive Stories in an Immersive Environment

Wonder Dome

Humans tell stories; how we tell them changes. 

Wonder Dome is a touring performance platform that brings traditional storytelling into the 21st century by inviting audiences of all ages into an interactive, 360-degree immersive dome where stories are encountered, explored and told by mixing ancient forms of live performance with cinema, gaming, human-computer interaction and cutting edge digital technology.

The idea of working inside an immersive dome originated during my first semester of grad school (fall 2011), in a class called Concepts and Collaboration. I had been thinking about creating work inside a mediated touring tent or other immersive structure. As I developed my final project, I stumbled upon the idea of creating work inside a dome rather than a tent. I received overwhelming support for creating interactive work at the intersection of live performance and digital media in a touring dome.

Inspired by this response, I assembled a team and applied for ASU’s Innovation Challenge Grant. During the application process I thoroughly investigated the history and current work on live performance in domes (read: there’s not much). I didn’t receive the grant, but my interest in the idea was undimmed, and I began working with ASU’s Roger Bedard to explore the theoretical, practical, artistic and business aspects of creating and touring embodied storytelling in an immersive dome for youth and family audiences.

Over the summer of 2012, I worked with ASU’s Boyd Branch on his MFA thesis project. We decided to combine our efforts and set his production in a dome. We built a cheap PVC dome to run some initial tests, and what we discovered was that everything about working in a dome was difficult. Projecting, warping, blending, creating content, figuring out how to stage live performances in a dome – none of it was easy. Not to mention that ASU didn’t have an actual dome, so we also had to figure out how to build an affordable structure.

The bottom line: work inside a dome is HARD and EXPENSIVE. I decided, that combination was just too much. I could manage EASY and EXPENSIVE or HARD and CHEAP, but hard and expensive was just too much for me to pursue for my MFA thesis project. So Boyd and I looked into other options for his show, and I began to explore different ideas.

And then….

And then, I don’t know what happened. People just kept encouraging me. It seemed the DOME was bigger than I was. It needed to come to life. So I decided to dedicate some more time to the project to see if it really had any legs. I said, if I can get some initial start-up money, then I’ll continue. I applied for The Pave Program in Arts Entrepreneurship grant, and to my surprise, I got it! And thus, in earnest, began the journey to create a new platform for live performance. It would be HARD and EXPENSIVE, but I was committed.

Fellow graduate student Adam Vachon decided to make Wonder Dome his thesis project and joined the team as lighting designer. One of the toughest challenges we encountered is how to light the performers without washing out the dome screen. I’ve made it even more difficult on Adam by wanting to blur the boundaries between audience space and performance space. Adam has been gracefully leading the difficult task of designing a real-time motion tracking system so the lighting can follow the performers as they move through the dome.

I invited my friend and colleague Alex Oliszewski to design media for the production. Alex, a new professor at Ohio State University, recently graduated from the same MFA program I am enrolled in, and it wasn’t long before we figured out that our work together on Wonder Dome was bigger than a thesis project. With the support of ASU’s School of Film, Dance and Theatre and School of Arts, Media and Engineering, along with OSU’s Advanced Computing Center for the Arts and Design and Department of Theatre, we pushed forward with Wonder Dome as a cross-university research project as well as an entrepreneurial venture.

Such an undertaking requires an army of dedicated and talented people, so we assembled a cracker-jack team of performers, designers, technicians and managers. As big as Wonder Dome is, it is nothing without the people who bring their heart and soul to the project every step of the way. Without them, there would be no Wonder Dome.

By this time the dome was really rolling…only we didn’t have a story. Or a media system. Or a ____, nor a ____, not to mention a DOME! But we did have big ideas. And plans. And people just kept supporting us. My work interested CSI, so I became a fellow, researching how interactive stories can be told in immersive spaces. SPARK! Festival of Creativity at Mesa Arts Center was also interested in the work, and commissioned Wonder Dome’s first performance for their 2014 festival. And so, we raised some more money and built a second PVC test dome with a donated, decommissioned 28′ parachute from Luke Air Force Base as a screen.

And soon enough we were lucky to become partners with some pretty heavy-hitting industry sponsors. BARCO is providing the projectors, NVIDIA is supplying the graphics cards, and Pacific Domes International is providing our performance domes. VORTEX IMMERSION MEDIA is partnering with us to use and develop their custom Touch Designer media server for real-time dome warping and edge blending. We will be developing plug-ins and additional patches for Vortex’s TD media server for potential future release.

That brings us to the present. We just staged the first scene for the upcoming show at Mesa Arts Center in March, and we continue to research, explore and delight in the work of creating live performances tailored for the dome environment. I hope you’ll follow the Wonder Dome’s progress at our Facebook page!

Credits:

The Wonder Dome is cross-university project between Arizona State University and The Ohio State University.

Sponsored by:
BARCO || NVIDIA || PACIFIC DOMES INTERNATIONAL || VORTEX IMMERSION MEDIA

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