Virtual relaunch at Planetarium

A 3D computer graphic of the sun rising over Stonehenge appears to move across the famous dome towards you. Then a human figure emerges from the dark sky, and suddenly you are hurtling at break-neck speed down the optic nerve into the brain. The London Planetarium has changed its image, writes David Lister.

Today, it will launch its new virtual reality show and open its renovated building, all at an overall cost of pounds 4.5m.

The stars on the ceiling still form their familiar clusters and constellations. But this is now only a small part of the show, rapidly giving way to the latest computer technology, aided by the pounds 500,000 Digistar 2, the world's most advanced star projector. The waiting area has been remodelled for the first time since the Planetarium opened in 1958, as one large interactive exhibition space. And there is a wax model of the cosmologist Stephen Hawking in his wheelchair. He will be at the opening which will be presided over by video by science fiction writer Arthur C Clarke.

It is clear that the London Planetarium will be the model for planetaria across the world. The scope of 3D computer graphics with their lifelike quality, simulation of speed and weightless suspension, make the original format outdated.

And the Planetarium has made strenuous and largely successful efforts, in the commentary spoken by Sir Ian McKellen, to keep a substantial educational input, and not be seduced by its new technology into pure entertainment.

Undine Concannon, the administrator and archivist for the Planetarium, said: "We had to bring the Planetarium into the computer age and keep up with public expectations. Some of the public had found us a little bit stale. Our aim is still to produce an entertaining, educational experience, and we do it in the most advanced way possible."

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