If you’re anything like me, you love a good planetarium show. I don’t mean the trippy laser light shows set to Pink Floyd tunes (although these certainly have their place), but rather the kind of immersive experience that gives you a glimpse into the untold depths of the universe and a few wondrous moments of what it feels like to soar through outer space. Now, a team of neuroscientists, astronomers, software engineers and film specialists are working on a new planetarium show to give us a fly-through experience in a different kind of vast and awe-inspiring space: the human brain.
The project is called the Neurodome. It’s the brainchild of Jonathan Fisher, a neuroscientist at New York Medical College who also has a background in astrophysics. Although the planetarium version of the Neurodome is not yet complete, you can get a taste of what to expect tomorrow evening at Columbia University in New York, where Fisher and Columbia astronomer Matt Turk will guide viewers through pictures of outer space and images of human brains, explaining how light travels across the universe from distant stars and into the eye, triggering electrical impulses in the brain’s neural pathways. “Just like you can walk through Google Earth, we’ll walk through the brain,” says Fisher.
The full length planetarium piece plans to pair this imagery of outer space and the human brain with a narrative about finding the biological basis for why humans are driven to explore. Featuring a variety of three-dimensional brain depictions captured using several different molecular and anatomical imaging techniques, the show will focus on the regions and pathways in the brain that are believed to be involved in exploratory behaviors.
But going from outer space to this inner space was technically challenging, says Fisher, because the data visualization tools used by planetariums were designed to give two-dimensional astronomical images a three-dimensional feel. To make the Neurodome possible, Fisher’s team joined forces with the Swedish planetarium software company SCISS AB to develop a program capable of displaying actual three-dimensional biological data, rather than simulations, in a dome-format film. (For a look at other new approaches to the immersive display of biological data, see this month’s feature article by Dyani Lewis.)
You can watch the trailer for the Neurodome above. Fisher says his team is planning to release a 5-10 minute version of the piece to planetariums in the US later this summer or fall, and hopes to release a longer, 20 minute version by spring of 2015.