The Planetorium: Sonic Information Design for Earthling Audiences
R. Michael Winters, Avrosh Kumar, Brianna J. Tomlinson and Bruce N. Walker
For millennia, humans have looked into the night sky and wondered at what they saw. This curiosity led them to develop instruments that enabled them to look deeply into space, which revealed celestial bodies in ever-greater detail. They developed new mathematics and physics to better understand and predict the cosmos and began to teach each other, pointing to what they knew to be true. Sadly, as the objective facts and figures poured in with ever-increasing precision, the oral traditions of myths, stories, and gods began to fade from view.
In the past century, some humans have worked to cultivate a new technology that would allow humans to use their ears to hear the objects that, before, they could only see. By transforming numbers into sound, humans could listen again, which made those who could hear it very happy. However, others did not comprehend it, became confused, and began to ask one another: How can I make sense of something I cannot see? How do I know what I am hearing is true? Is this some kind of music, or something else altogether?
In this paper, we use “The Planetorium” as a metaphor and context for understanding how we might best design aural celestial experiences for earthling audiences. Audiences are groups of individual humans all listening to the same thing at the same place for some length of time. And while planetariums are places they go to learn about space through stunning views and new perspectives, planetoriums (like auditoriums) are places they go to listen.
In this paper, we will present the strategies and designs behind two public-facing planetorium experiences. The first was a formal, educational planetarium show where the audience learned about the solar system by taking an auditory journey through space. The second was an informal, mobile, and live musical sonification of the 2017 Great American Eclipse that could be tuned into by anyone over the web. Our design strategies were based upon a mixture of previous research, in-person interviews, and creative interpretation, three pillars that we hope will benefit others wishing to design for groups of these diverse organisms.