Chp. 2: Cost to Install

Chapter 2 – How much will this cost to acquire and install?

So what is it going to cost to get fulldome video?

Much depends on how large your theater is, and what exactly you want and need to do with it. In considering costs, this chapter focuses on the costs to acquire and install your fulldome video system. The following chapter contains thoughts on the costs to keep it running.

Your administrators and budget officers are probably going to want some estimates. We can’t give you exact figures in this book, because there’s so much variation, but we can help point out some of the costs to budget for planning and to avoid unpleasant surprises.



One of the first things to look at is your dome. When was it installed? How’s it holding up? If your dome has lots of dents or other damage, it might not look very good over a new projection system, especially one that adds lots of brighter images to it, rather than just a starfield. Repairs and cleaning are a must.

Even if your dome is in good shape, it will most likely need to be repainted or resurfaced. Opto-mechs worked best in high-reflectivity, almost pure white domes. Digital projectors don’t have the same contrast as an opto-mech, and tend to produce a superior image when projected on a less reflective surface. At the very least, you should expect to resurface your dome. You could forgo this process, but it may compromise the final image quality.

With small domes, this might just mean some painting—although it will have to be an extremely smooth, consistent paint job of exactly the right color.

With large domes, the resurfacing can be a major project, involving the deinstallation and reinstallation of the dome. If you have an aluminum dome, it might mean the removal of each individual panel of the dome for resurfacing. Major dome work also means the need for a workspace to access the dome, which requires either the removal of seating, or construction of a very strong false floor over the seats. Neither of those options are cheap. Sometimes one can also only change the reflectivity of an existing dome so much, and getting the best reflectivity for your system may involve the need to purchase new aluminum panels, or lay down a new layer of plaster.

Of course, that can all be thrown off if you want a system that uses both the opto-mechanical projector and fulldome video. In such a case you may opt for a compromise reflectivity level between the two projection components.

Since so much work may need to be done to the dome, it might even be worth looking at an entirely new dome, if you feel a different dome technology would better suit your theater.

A consideration at this time may also be changing the size of your dome. It was relatively easy to build very large domes with opto-mechanical projectors, but fulldome projectors for large domes are significantly more expensive. Rebuilding a large dome into one of 40’ or smaller can open up a wide variety of less expensive fulldome systems; spending more on this step will make for savings later, though you’ll also have to consider the reduced seating capacity.



Whether or not you have to deal with your seating as you deal with your dome, it’s worth taking a look at your seating. How’s it holding up? Are parts worn, broken, in need of replacement? Do you just want new, potentially more comfy seats? Will you be able to add more seats to your theater? Do you want to change the layout? Most fulldome systems direct the audience attention primarily towards one side of the dome, making that side into an obvious "front" side. If you have a concentric seating layout, you may want to change that to a unidirectional layout which aside from the reinstallation work, also may involve changing the number of seats.


Projector Location

Aside from the dome and seats, other structural changes may need to happen to your theater. Once again, are you keeping an opto-mechanical projector? What was your seating layout? Do you have a projection gallery, and how deep is it?

There are a wide variety of different projectors for fulldome video, in many different layouts. Projectors can be placed anywhere from the center of the room to along the periphery of the room. Determining projector placement will require closely working with potential vendors to determine what options are possible and feasible, especially if installing into an existing dome. 

If keeping or adding an opto-mechanical star projector, the challenges are similar to what we faced in the past with allsky and panorama slide projector layouts. Your potential fulldome system vendors will need to work with you to minimize distracting shadows. Any projection system can cause shadows while the opto-mech is active in the theater, of course. With some multi-projector arrangements, it might be possible to place video projectors around the edge of the dome and aim them at angles around the opto-mech. It might be possible to mount the video projectors near the center of the theater, positioned around the star projector and aim them outwards onto the dome. Your potential vendors should have some good ideas about fitting everything you need into your final system layout.

Depending on the projection configuration you decide on, you may need to make some changes to the theater environment. If you remove the opto-mech and it had a lift, you’ll need some mechanical work to remove it and fill it in. A centrally-located projector may need new wiring connections to be laid in your theater, while cove-mounted ones may not only need new wiring, but may need new projector supports in your gallery or on your dome to be constructed.

This may also involve relocating your theater’s console, and certainly changing the equipment in it. You may also find it useful to add additional video and audio connections around the theater.

If you’re keeping an opto-mechanical projector, do you want it to be automated with your fulldome system, or keep it separate? Do you even want a synchronization system that keeps the opto-mech aligned with digital effects so the two can work together in the same shows? As with everything else, this is going to add cost to your system!



Another very common change to make at the time is to convert from lumiline or incandescent bulbs to LED cove lighting. LED coves are often an easy sell: They add a great deal of functionality. They also reduce energy costs, sometimes saving up to hundreds or thousands of dollars a year. But they’re also initially expensive to install; expensive enough so that while they might save you lots of energy, they might take years to actually pay for themselves with the savings. You might not want to mention that part to your administrators, although with decreasing availability and increasing costs of incandescents, and the maintenance nightmare of lumilines, it might still be very justifiable. 



And what about audio? This is also a great opportunity to improve and revise your audio system—depending on what you had before and how elaborate of a system you want to create in the future, this can vary a lot in price. A simple stereo (left, right) system could still be used, but most available pre-rendered shows take advantage of 5.1 and 7.1 soundtracks to make the audio as immersive as the video.  Such 5.1 and 7.1 audio systems can be easy to install, maintain and support, although even more elaborate speaker layouts are definitely possible. 


Computing Infrastructure

These issues are just looking at the front end of the system; there’s a lot more that needs added behind the scene,s too. You’ll need the computing power to run your system. Depending on the size and capability of your system, this might mean a couple of small but powerful computers that can be stationed at the console, but for larger systems this means a rack of servers that will need to live in a constantly climate-controlled room. This might mean whole new HVAC and electrical installs, since these systems often need to be independent from those of the facility as a whole. This will also usually include uninterruptable power supplies and power conditioners as well.


Production Infrastructure

And that might not be all the computing power you need to add. Are you interested in doing production? While a lot of production, including recreating classic shows, can be done in the theater, it’s often easier (and good to avoid occupying theater time and use of the system) by adding production computers outside the planetarium dome area—these production stations, ideally, should also include another copy of the software running your planetarium, as well as all the other software programs you’ll need for video editing, photo manipulation, vector graphics editing, and 3D software production. Not only will the computer you do this work on needs lots of processing power, but if you’re interested in producing sophisticated pre-rendered programs, you’ll also want to add a so-called render farm—a networked group of computers that work together to create visuals. For many large systems you’ll also need slicing software that will chop the individual frames of your pre-rendered program apart into the individual video channels for each projector.

There also might be use in adding specialized photography and videography equipment to capture real-world and live-action sequences, too. DSLR cameras with fisheye lenses allow for still and time lapse fulldome imagery (many have been photographing allskies this way for years). Live-action fulldome video is reaching a point that it’s becoming accessible to everyone at relatively reasonable costs.

If you plan to produce your own content, or purchase content from others, you’re quite likely to need to make an investment in lots and lots of hard drives. Fulldome video exhausts hard drive space incredibly quickly. The average consumer might have a hard time exhausting a few hundred gigabytes of hard drive space, let alone a terabyte. Fulldome video can eat up an entire terabyte of space with just the dome masters (the individual frames) for a show, and much, much more if you’re doing production locally.

Whether you need all of these things depends on how much of this you want to do. Not everyone will want to produce elaborate pre-rendered productions, especially with the growing versatility and quality of realtime content, but it’s usually easier to roll production equipment into the initial project than to add it later on.


Staff and Training

Depending on how much work you want to do, that might also mean additional, trained staffing to do it, too, or at least getting some extensive new training for current staffing. Some facilities that do a lot of work will even add a second, small production dome that they can use to test sequences in the hemispherical environment without using time in the main dome.


The Future

Many of these components can become part of the ongoing costs over the life of your system, so another step some facilities take during their conversion is to raise money for an endowment for the planetarium, the interest on which can be used for future supplies, upgrades and replacements.



So what will this cost? It depends on what you want your system to be. It depends on what you want to do with it. It depends on what vendors you go with and what components you use.

The costs can vary a lot.

For a small dome, with the simplest systems, and no other facility changes, this can be done for a few tens of thousands of dollars.

A more thorough level of change can be done for hundreds of thousands.

The largest facilities often find themselves spending over a million, if not several million dollars on their upgrades.

The costs vary a great deal depending on what you want to do and what you have to start with.

There are so many options in the world now that it’s important to do a lot of research to find the solutions you think will work best for you. It’s very valuable to figure out what your priorities are: What parts of the display are most important to you? What types of presentation are important to you, and how do you want to interface with the system? What kind of content do you want to produce for the system, and how?

As above, these are questions that can’t be answered for you. You’ll need to take a thorough look at what your needs and wants are, and from there you can start to figure out what changes you’ll need to make to your system, and, from there, what the costs involved will be like.