Science on a Sphere

A Brief History of Spherical Filmmaking

To be clear, NASA Goddard did not invent spherical video systems. The preferred theatrical technology, officially called Science On a Sphere, was developed by NASA's sibling science agency NOAA. NOAA's remarkable video platform predates NASA's involvement by a number of years. NOAA also maintains a robust and well-respected hub for public domain spherical content and technological development.
NASA came to the sphere scene later. When introduced to the still-developing technology, all parties thought it would be a perfect platform to showcase The Space Agency's extensive planetary data library. Planetary images fit easily and logically on round screens, after all.
But rectangular television and movie screens are not limited to rectangular subjects, and the media team at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center soon had an idea about how spherical screens might be available for broader subject matter, too. In 2006 they produced the world's first spherical movie, called Footprints. That project demonstrated the potentials for cinematic experiences on fully spherical screens, and pointed a path toward new visual designs.  Water Falls marks that production team's 6th film, and demonstrates exciting growth in terms of technique and technology for spherical movies.

Students watching a film on Science on a Sphere. Students watching a film on Science on a Sphere.
Traditional film and video geometry fits inside rectangles, presenting visual ideas according to conventions that extend back through centuries of two dimensional art. But spheres throw much of that convention out the window. With an effectively seamless "frame", there is no left and right to an image. Traditional camera viewfinders naturally have left and right sides--and tops and bottoms, too!--and as such, their images do not easily transfer to spherical surfaces.
Movies for spheres demand reconsideration of old rules.
Working with NOAA's spectacular invention, NASA Goddard's production team stretched the boundaries. What had been born a system designed for playing back planetary data sets has become a platforms for all sorts of media. The visual and narrative rules for these round stories may be different from rectangular formats, but just like actual scientific research, sometimes it's the unexpected discoveries that lead researchers to the most exciting frontiers.  

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