by Ken Brown

Among San Francisco’s most popular destinations is the new $500 million California Academy of Sciences building in Golden Gate Park, and NVIDIA’s GPUs are helping to bring it to life.

In addition to its slithering creatures and four-story rainforest, a key attraction is the Morrison Planetarium, which boasts one of the world’s largest digital projection systems. Inside the cavernous dome, six projectors display a 4096×4096 pixel image that seems to extend beyond your peripheral vision. With such a huge canvas to play with, the visualization team can tell a mighty big story. And perhaps no story is bigger than the story of life.

Starting with the first stars and ending with the profusion of life on Earth, Life: A Cosmic Story tells the 14-billion-year saga of how we came to be. It’s a journey that takes audiences from a microscopic view inside a plant cell to the vastness of the universe with billions of galaxies swirling in space.

Morrison Planetarium: By the numbers
Dome size 90 feet
Total GPUs used for show 24
GPUs used for playback 12
GPUs used for rendering 12
Number of annual visitors 750,000
Length of “Story of Life” 25 minutes
Screen size 75 feet
Screen resolution 4096×4096 pixels

Few of the planetarium’s 750,000 annual visitors realize the technological complexity behind such a show. The visualization team uses a dozen Quadro workstations to create and render each scene. A room full of humming servers uses another 12 GPUs to output video and interact with digital content in real-time – which gives the Morrison Planetarium team incredible power and flexibility.

“We can actually pilot the planetarium like a video game,” says Ryan Wyatt, the director of the Morrison Planetarium and visualization team. “We use specialized software, but it relies on graphics cards and GPUs to give us the performance we need to manipulate the vast quantities of data involved with taking people on a tour of the universe.”

We recently visited the planetarium with a film crew to put together this short video. Be sure to visit the California Academy of Sciences if you’re in San Francisco –it’s a great place to educate and inspire kids of all ages. Life: A Cosmic Story is playing through the end of the year. Go here for more.