This past week a collection of dramatically diverse thinkers gathered at the Science Museum of Minnesota in St. Paul to share notes at the 2014 Science On a Sphere Users Group. Educators, museum exhibit designers, technology companies, filmmakers, and representatives from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) didn't just show off. They shared. It's an unusual working group insofar as it includes a multidisciplinary list of participants, many of whom would not normally imagine spending their precious time in professional workshops with people so far outside their core competencies. Computer programmers having coffee with curriculum development specialists? Sure. Government officials hanging out with artists, both discussing data visualizations based on satellite observations? At this conference that’s ordinary.
As many of you know, our team has a long legacy developing content for spherical screens. From our first spherical movie—and the world’s first spherical movie!—called FOOTPRINTS, we go back to the earliest days of filmmaking on The Sphere, and indeed NOAA’s sphere itself. With the release of that first film there were only 10 screens in the world. Now there are more than 100, with more scheduled to open soon. At this year’s conference we presented our latest film called WATER FALLS, and reactions were extremely positive. (Thanks to all of you who sought us out with such kind words!)
But this is all preamble. The Science On a Sphere community has grown tremendously since 2006 and a wealth of talent now attends meetings and develops content for the growing library. Sitting in the darkened theater just a few days ago, an old familiar thought rushed in as I watched a pair of smart newcomers from the University of Indiana strut their stuff. There is no end to fresh ideas. There are always new articulations for subjects that may at first look like they’ve been exhausted. From only 26 letters of the alphabet, an endless potential of sentences and poems and essays and books are possible. For a strange media platform that shows images on a round screen, without three dimensionality due to the screen’s curvature, without distortion—again because of the curvature, and without the ability for someone in the audience to even see the whole screen at once, the possibilities for inventive uses go on and on and on.
Many in the community are young. Youth has the potential to empower extraordinary experimentation and achievement. Unencumbered by many of the burdensome weights of later adulthood, youth facilitates extraordinary focus, which is the best amplifier for any creative enterprise. Smart bootstrap teams from universities and museums and small independent outfits are taking microscopic budgets and transforming them into cool expressions.
But not everybody in that crowd is young. The opportunity to be on the cutting edge of something new and collaborative shakes the dust off many a career administrator or institutional manager. Bold, fresh ways of thinking get a leg up in this crowd as people get swept up in the rush of potential and opportunity. The fact that the audience is limited, that it's not open to gigantic numbers, also helps incubate smart, intimate generation of ideas rather than force pressure-cooker conditions that can sometimes overwhelm delicate concepts still forming.
To be clear, not every idea at the conference was good. That's to be expected, of course. Quality is hard to find in any environment, in any discipline. But this year something changed at the conference. The platform has clearly reached a critical mass. What was once a rather strict and dogmatic fortress surrounding hermetically sterile presentations of scientific data has finally blossomed. There is no such thing as the correct kind of content for any media platform. The utility of an invention will almost always be a surprise after a thing is invented. NOAA’s remarkable Sphere may have been born in a nursery redolent of satellites and scientific visualization, but it has grown into a spunky, mature young adult, full of promise and potential for all sorts of uses. That it is especially good at presenting stories about The Earth and other planets in the solar system only proves the point: expansion of uses and capabilities on The Sphere reinforces its seminal genesis. Diversity in growth strengthens the genome.
At 1AU we continue to be committed to this unusual and exciting platform, and pledge to remain engaged as it continues to evolve. After all, new ideas require the same mindset as children ought to require from community elders. New ideas require villages to support their growth and maturity. New ideas need encouragement to pursue the broad horizon, secure in the thought that there’s a safe harbor to return for support, emboldened by the belief that there’s a whole village back home waiting enthusiastically to learn what wonders await out on the frontier.