Japanese optical equipment maker Konica Minolta is using the cloud to help better see the stars.
The company has rolled out a cloud computing-based video library for planetariums that aims to broaden the viewing experience and bring back audiences lost during the pandemic.
Subsidiary Konica Minolta Planetarium is behind the Connected Dome platform that can deliver footage to planetariums nationwide. It has been offering the Connected Dome Library subscription service since 2021.
Subscribing planetariums use a dedicated device to connect to the online library that allows users to choose programs while previewing the options. The program can be screened to audiences as soon as the next day, greatly reducing the prep time of conventional programs.
The conventional process for choosing planetarium footage is both time consuming and costly. Operators first need to peruse catalogs and DVDs to choose the program. The program needs to be converted to data that can be screened in a planetarium. A technician on site then loads the data to be screened.
Audio and video settings have to be adjusted to match the planetarium’s media equipment, a process that typically shuts down a planetarium for three days. The fee for the content often hovers around 100,000 yen ($745).
The total time between selecting content and screening it can take up to a month. Planetariums outside big urban centers often do not have the time or the budget to put together programming designed to draw target audiences, such as children on summer breaks.
Konica Minolta’s platform streamlines the process.
“We only have to press a button to play, so we’re able to reallocate the time for installing data to equipment maintenance and operational prep work,” said a manager at the Tsukuba Expo Center, a planetarium in Tsukuba, a city northeast of Tokyo.
The center tried the service on a pilot basis, seeing customer traffic grow more than 50% as it was able to offer more programming.
The subscription fee varies depending on amount and type of programming. The standard plan lets the planetarium choose three programs annually at a cost of roughly 1.8 million yen.
There are also options to purchase short-term or yearlong screening rights for each program. The subscription includes device rental fees and maintenance service.
Konica Minolta creates its own content, as well as offers content from other producers and planetariums all over the country. Eleven planetariums have subscribed to the platform, and Konica Minolta aims to quickly the total to 50.
“In the future, we aim to continue to provide attractive planetarium content by communicating with space stations and remotely participating in musical concerts and events,” said Hiroyasu Furuse, president and CEO of Konica Minolta Planetarium.
Konica Minolta first got into the planetarium business 66 years ago. The company’s founder, Kazuo Tashima, used to frequent Japan’s first planetarium that opened in Osaka in 1937. He developed the first planetarium to use Japanese-made equipment in 1957.
Konica Minolta directly operates five planetariums, including locations in Tokyo, Yokohama and Nagoya.
There are roughly 2,700 planetariums around the world, according to Konica Minolta. About 400 are located in Japan, the second-highest number after the U.S.
In recent years, planetariums have become a popular pastime for people of all ages thanks to the plethora of entertainment-focused programming.
In Japan, planetariums attendance peaked in the 2010s, surpassing 8.5 million visitors a year, according to the Japan Planetarium Association. The pandemic depressed attendance to 3.12 million visitors during the fiscal year ended March 2021. The number improved somewhat to 4.76 million people in fiscal 2021, but planetariums in outlying areas are still feeling the pain.
As a storied name behind planetariums, Konica Minolta looks to support the evolution of the business. The company recently built new planetariums in Nagoya and Yokohama that adopt an innovative LED imaging system that does away with conventional projectors.
Other companies are also making efforts to improve planetarium technology. A system that developer Sony Music Solutions says can project the world’s largest number of stars was installed in Yokohama city’s Hamagin Space Science Center in November.
The system was jointly developed with Ohira Tech, a company established by former Sony engineer Takayuki Ohira. Sony says that, while a normal planetarium can project from 1,000 to several thousand stars, the new system can project about 1.2 billion.
The system is based on Sony’s Blu-ray optical disc mastering technology, which the company was able to improve on to allow for the reproduction of stars which are invisible to the naked eye.
“We were able to get close to the real texture of the Milky Way and its countless stars, as if you were looking at it from a pitch-black mountaintop. You can experience the depth of the universe. I hope many people get to enjoy it,” Ohira said.