Exoplanet Explorer 360° Planetarium

My fascination with other planets was sparked
by two things: one was early in my life. At about 8 years old I was given a space encyclopedia
and I remember poring over it, reading it hundreds of times. There were pictures of
Jupiter and Saturn, and that was fascinating. When I started my A Levels and towards degree
level I started reading a lot of science fiction. Academic science is great and I got loads
from that, but actually the science fiction sets your mind free a little bit and allows
you to push forward and imagine where it might go. Although it started very early, I’d say
it really blew up just before and coming into university, and then it got huge and uncontrollable.
The link with Engine House came through some media work I did with Stargazing Live. They
saw me on TV, they saw the output from our research and their initial feeling was ‘we
can do much better than that, we can do much better than those visualisations’. They contacted
me off the back of that. Engine House is an animation studio based in Cornwall. We create
animations, visual effects, virtual reality and a whole kind of other things for different
clients: the BBC, NHS, Sony, Transport for London and lots of other people. Nathan is
really passionate about his subject; he really gets what the potential is, what we can do
here, and what we can really bring to the subject and how that can help bring it to
a wider audience. The process of collaboration can be quite painful. The process at first
was to meet face-to-face and describe your vision. What is it you really want to happen?
Finding a common language between the two areas of expertise – the academic research
and the people who are highly skilled in the programming behind the visualisations – that
was a big challenge. It’s complicated in some areas to find a common ground because there
were some technical and specific understandings of how these scenes played out. One planet
had a large comet tail, and understanding how big that was and the shape of it was complicated.
From a technical perspective the most difficult things were creating something that’s happening
everywhere around you, so there’s points of interest all around. Being able to tie that
in with the information that we were given from Exeter Uni as well. My expectations were
absolutely exceeded. I would say there’s one or two very minor things we had to compromise
on, but in terms of the science that was communicated through the visualisations in fact it was
excellent. We are really happy with the end result and it’s performing really well on
YouTube. It made it onto YouTube’s VR channel and is now also We the Curious’ most popular
science video. It had a really good response online, and visually it’s absolutely brilliant
whether it’s the 360 experience or even if we crop it down to any vantage point. It looks
really nice and we’re delighted with it. The project we hope will be further developed
by continuing on to make a trailer for a following app or game that we could then use online
for use in education to inspire young minds to get into this subject. The scope for expanding
this is huge. I think we are entering an era where science has been demonstrated over the
last few years that it needs to communicate more widely, to demystify the concepts and
involve people in what we’re doing. I think something like this, as inspirational as trying
to find aliens, is a real tool that we can use to involve people in what we’re trying
to do. Things like games and visual effects that can be shared via the internet – this
is how people share things now. This is the way it’s done, so engaging with that form
of media is really important.