Fundraiser seeks to make planetarium out of this world

>May 29, 2019

Fundraiser seeks to make planetarium out of this world

The Science Museum of Western Virginia has high-tech ambitions for its 36-year-old Hopkins Planetarium.

“We’re excited to finally have a chance to tell everybody about it,” said museum marketing manager Koren Smith. “I think that we’re going to surprise a lot of people who are not going to realize that this is possible because it’s so futuristic.”

Should the museum’s plans see realization, it will be possible for visitors to wear goggles that allow them to explore images projected on the planetarium’s dome in three dimensions. Next month, the museum will launch a campaign to raise $250,000 to help make this happen.

The proposed planetarium upgrade, called The Eye, has grown out of the museum’s longtime partnership with Virginia Tech.

At present, the museum doesn’t own a projector that can cover the dome’s full surface.

Upgrading the planetarium has long been a goal of the museum. Though the museum underwent remodeling before a grand reopening in 2013, fundraising fell short of the amount needed to give the planetarium a makeover. Museum Executive Director Rachel Hopkins and her predecessor, Jim Rollings, have both floated an estimate of about $600,000 to replace the current projector with a similar machine.

The cutting-edge alternative designed in collaboration with the Institute for Creativity, Arts and Technology at Virginia Tech is actually less costly.

The content of The Eye won’t be limited to stars and planets. “This is not a planetarium 2.0. It’s a planetarium on steroids, if you want to think of it that way,” Smith said.

An overhead view of The Cyclorama inside The Cube at Virginia Tech’s Moss Art Center, which uses a cylindrical screen to create immersive, three dimensional effects. The Roanoke science museum intends install the same technology in the Hopkins Planetarium, where it can use the dome to create similar effects.

“What we want to do is create a space within a planetarium that’s like the classroom of the future,” said Hopkins. (She’s not related to the planetarium’s namesake, the late Williams B. Hopkins Sr., a Virginia state senator who served on the founding board of directors of downtown Roanoke’s Center in the Square, which houses the museum.)

The revamped space would make use of the large dome that’s already there. Multiple projectors would be installed that utilize the entire surface of the dome, allowing the creation of a hologram effect when a presentation calls for it. The old fixed seating would be replaced with seats that can be rearranged to suit the needs of whoever is using the space. When not reserved for a specific use, the planetarium would be open to museum attendees, who can direct and change whatever is being projected onto the dome by controlling a large touchscreen tablet.

“It will show content that is connected through Google Earth,” Smith said. “You can go anywhere on this planet. You can go anywhere inside the human body. You can do artistic interpretations of things to do with science. ‘Planetarium’ just doesn’t quite do it justice.”

The museum intends to achieve these goals using a modified version of the Cyclorama, a projection system built in 2016 for The Cube, the experimental black box theater inside Virginia Tech’s Moss Arts Center. Made with tech developed by The Elumenati, a Wisconsin-based firm that specializes in virtual reality, the Cyclorama utilizes a 16-foot-tall, 40-foot-diameter screen that completely surrounds the viewer.

The Eye won’t surround the viewer a full 360 degrees, but the dome is large enough that a similar Elumenati multiple projector system will be able to achieve 3D effects, Smith said.

Once that technology is installed, The Eye will be the only theater of its kind on the East Coast that’s open to the general public, Hopkins said.

She noted that The Eye could be employed for many purposes beyond museum programming. For example, plans for a building could be projected in 3D to allow a virtual walkthrough prior to construction.

“It can be adapted for any business,” Smith said. “It’s going to be this brand-new area for so many other collaborations.”

“We still will deliver the classic planetarium experience,” Hopkins said. “We’re committed as well to being a regional economic asset.”

The museum hopes to raise at least $100,000 of the $250,000 through small donations that come directly from the community. Funds from a $100,000 matching grant will in effect double those donations.

In addition to physical renovations and installation of the projector system, the $250,000 would allow the museum to hire a programming director for The Eye, Smith said.

The museum is also applying for additional grant funding for the project, which Smith said has a total cost of $500,000.

Science museum officials are planning an official launch Saturday evening during their “STEM Ball: Exploring Illusion” fundraising event. The museum plans to create a crowdfunding page as an additional way of accepting donations for the campaign.

The museum is open Tuesday through Saturday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., and Sunday, 1 to 5 p.m. The museum will be open Mondays from June through August. Admission is $15; $13.50 for senior citizens, military, students and children ages 6-17; and $7.50 for children ages 3-5. For more information, call 342-5710 or visit

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