Last week, I toured the universe. I soared through the cosmos, rushing past the International Space Station, past the sun, past thousands of galaxies — all while seated in a Morrison Drive warehouse. As I lounged in a bean bag chair inside one of Open Dome Production's immersive domes, I saw space, the final frontier.
You may not be familiar with Open Dome, but you may have noticed their gizmos at past events like last week's Ballpark Festival of Beer. Or perhaps your son or daughter came home from school one day gushing about the trip they made through infinity without ever leaving their classroom.
"We came together and we decided we wanted to do something really profound," says Ian Downie about the company, which he started with business partner Jack Powell. The pair, who have backgrounds in media creation, audio engineering, and videography, discovered the planetarium industry, taking what's normally a multimillion-dollar business and scaling it down to domes to make it affordable for schools. And it's all portable.
"Charleston doesn't have anything like it," Downie says. "It doesn't have a planetarium. It doesn't have anybody else working in this medium." There aren't even a whole lot of full-dome theaters in the country, and Downie says 95 percent of those are focused on astronomy.
Open Dome has two different domes, in which they project various films. The first, the small one (20' by 20' by 12'), is the one they take to schools. It only takes about two people to transport it and set it up, and you can fit 15 to 20 kids in it at a time. They license most of their educational films, some of which they get from NASA. Open Dome is trying to produce their own work, focusing on topics from biology to history.
These programs can be highly interactive; a presenter can take the students' questions and tailor the show specifically to what they want to know. "We've got video clips of kids saying they wish class was always like that," Downie says. "They felt like they were really in space. They didn't know the universe was so big."
Then there's the big dome (30' by 30' by 30'). That's the one they can use for parties and for marketing. It takes more manpower to set up, but there's also more too it — they can set up a bar, a lounge, and a video jockey (VJ) inside. The guys describe it as a self-contained party (and yes, Powell says the dome is hard to clean, if you were wondering).
Open Dome can also go beyond the bubble, doing large video display scenes and architectural mapping. They're capable of changing the facade of the Customs House to look like something else.
"Everybody that we've had in here just gets excited about it. They're wowed. They want to tell people about it and be a champion for it," Downie says. "But it's been challenging to get people in here because they don't get it until they see it. It's hard to educate people on something that's never existed in this city before."
That's what Saturday is for. Though Open Dome has technically been around for two years, they are hosting their official launch party at the Pour House on Oct. 3. The event will allow local businesses and educators to get inside the domes and experience the applications. Inside the small dome, they'll premiere Planet Charleston, an 8-minute film Powell made by taking panoramic pictures of Charleston landmarks and transfiguring them into planets. After 10 p.m., the big dome will be outside in full party mode. The night will also feature live music from Josh Phillips and The Key of Q, Powell's band (see story, p. 58)
But don't expect to see any Hollywood features in the domes just yet — the films have to be adapted to the format from the beginning. But the guys aren't counting it out as a possibility, and they're looking to help the progression of their field. "I'd like to push the creative side of the industry and do things that people aren't doing and that people haven't thought to do, pioneer the content/creation side of things," Powell says. "I think there's just a whole world of things that you can do that people are just starting to do, and I think that we fit somewhere into that."