Corrections or additions?
This article by Bart Jackson was prepared for the March 31, 2004
issue of U.S. 1 Newspaper and revised 12-21-2004. All rights
Are the Stars Out Tonight? Digitally, Yes.
Remember Mars last summer burning a red hole in the fabric of the sky?
For a week following August 27th, the War God’s planet glowed like an
pulsing ember as we watched from our backyards. Spirit and
Opportunity, the latest Rovers for NASA’s Mars Probe are now
tantalizing us with images of eroded, dry stream beds. Where there was
once water – Life? Of course we are driven to explore it. We must.
But unlike expeditions of old, this time, the thrill of Mars is not to
be reserved for the explorers alone. Planetariums in our region have
made comprehensible the divine artistry of the skies, without taking
away any of their astronomical wonder. They offer to take us on a
virtual journey to the red planet – showing how close he will come in
the future and how his most intimate features appear in real time.
In New York, the Hayden Planetarium at the American Natural History
Museum offers an eye-boggling view of Mars as the visitor flies
through a virtual universe. In Philadelphia, the Fels Planetarium at
the Franklin Institute programs a special visit to Mars. In Trenton,
the state’s largest planetarium, located at the New Jersey State
Museum, features Mars in this month’s sky shows, as does the small
planetarium at Raritan Valley Community College.
And in Princeton, entrepreneur and engineer Aram Friedman dreams of
using the latest digital technology to develop the next planetarium
generation. Friedman led the team that rebuilt the Hayden
Planetarium’s presentation technology, and now he has opened a Nassau
Street office for his new company, Ansible Technologies, to sell a
$25,000 portable microdome. This 45-inch digital dome can be used in
classrooms to teach everything from astronomy to history. Material
comes downloaded directly from the International Space Station. Real
time displays can be seen. Friedman envisions a day when, in addition
to children being transported into the big city to see a planetarium,
the planetarium can be brought to the classroom.
For now, Friedman is applying for loans and giving tours to schools.
He is presenting a paper on the current state of technology for
planetariums at a prestigious convention the week of April 15 at the
University of Arizona. NASA officials are urging him to apply for a
Small Business Innovation Research grant, among others. Even though
Friedman admits he cannot predict a return with any degree of
accuracy, investors are lining up.
Everything, including Friedman, is quickly packable and portable;
ready to take off in a minute. In his small office, Friedman invites
this reporter to witness a demonstration of what he names "The
Portable Microdome." Deftly he rummages through huge crates and begins
unsnarling the coils of wire that will soon immerse me in the
universe. As he works, he asks my favorite constellation. I answer
Orion and he responds, "All right, we’ll go out that way.
Orion, that most commonly pointed out constellation, haunts the
twilight of our low southern sky. He is most easily observed by the
three-star belt cinching his manly figure. Renowned by the ancient
Greeks as the greatest hunter, Orion nightly squares off against
Taurus the bull who hides in his shoulder the much lusted-after
Pleiades, those seven lovely sisters. At the tip of Orion’s sword
shines Sirius, the dog star whom Hercules dispatched with his famous
club. From our back yards, we see these constellations just as the old
planetarium would have shown them: flat and twinkling.
But now the digital kicks in. Projectors focused on the dome, joystick
in hand, Friedman now guides my absorbing journey. We begin on the
earth, today at Princeton. He flashes a red grid one light year wide
across the screen and then a red dot on where the sun would lie. "We
need guideposts as we move through space," he smiles. "After all, you
always need to know how to get home."
With these albeit artificial reference points established, Orion in
all his glory stands before me. He has not seemed so clear since I
watched him atop Mount Kilimanjaro. Then we lift from earth, moving
toward him. We pass through the Kuiper belt: a group of asteroids and
cosmic dust bits just beyond Neptune’s orbit. We zoom in for a look
and I get my first experience of Friedman’s promised "immersive
As we head out toward Orion, Friedman sends out individual lines, like
tracers from our vantage point to each of the constellation’s stars.
"We are no longer earthbound," he announces, "and what most people
completely forget is that the sky is not flat. The stars in Orion are
three-dimensionally placed throughout the universe. They have depth."
Sure enough, as we change our perspective, rushing one, two, then ten
light years from earth, the great Greek hunter’s arms begin to
With a flick of the button, Friedman puts Orion behind us and points
us back earthward. He sets up a cube-shaped boundary box in which we
can focus on the Hades star cluster. I am boggled.
Friedman’s office features a photo of the l934 New York skyline,
where, bristling with scaffolding, the marvelous feat of the Hayden
dome stands caught in mid construction. This photo, spanning the
entire far wall, greets visitors and reminds its owner that technology
moves ever forward. The setting seems somehow appropriate to the man
who has grabbed the new technology and helped stargazers take that
quantum leap from earthbound observations out to viewpoints among the
stars themselves. Friedman is a man ardently committed to God’s
universe (or the skies) and to man’s best ways of displaying it.
It was not always so. Friedman’s sense of astronomical wonder remained
dormant until l996. Growing up in Paramus, where his mother was a
professional singer and his father a professional animator, Friedman
spent more of his time focused on the workbench than the stars. As a
youngster, he learned machining and welding at Hackensack’s Manpower
Training program. At 18 he entered the City College of New York
intending to study liberal arts. But after two years, an up and coming
electronic gadget caught his eye.
Computers held a galaxy of capabilities which Friedman jubilantly
explored and enhanced. For the next decade, his nights were spent
learning both hardware guts and software programming at the
Metropolitan Technical Institute, New York Institute of Technology,
and finally New York University. By day, he plied his evolving
knowledge to the benefit of network television. Starting as a field
engineer for CBS News and CBS Sports, he learned how to install remote
data networks for everything from NFL playoffs to brushfires.
By the mid ’90s, working for NBC and MTV, Friedman’s animation and
graphics expertise began to win him renown. As each of his latest 3D
and real time graphics innovations hit the air, Friedman was
inadvertently writing his resume on the tube.
Meanwhile, in l996 the American Natural History Museum had begun
design on the mammoth Phineas and Sandra Priest Rose Center for Earth
and Space, featuring a somehow marvelously upgraded Hayden
The Hayden Planetarium dates from l934, when Charles Hayden, a Boston
financier and philanthropist, stepped forward as the chief benefactor.
Throughout his life, Charles Hayden had believed that everyone should
gain "a more lively and sincere appreciation of the magnitude of the
universe…and feel the immensity of the sky and one’s own
Born to a prominent Boston family in 1870, Hayden tinkered his way
through the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Despite his formal
lifestyle, exasperated family members claimed that he was never more
at home than when fussing with some strange mechanical object in his
rolled up shirtsleeves. Two years after graduation, Hayden took his
engineering knowledge to market, founding the wildly successful
Hayden, Stone & Company brokerage house. He began investing in copper
stocks, diversified into a host of inventive companies during World
War I and made himself a fortune. At the end of his life, in l937,
this amazing financier and philanthropist had been elected to 58
boards of directors and had established the $50 million Hayden
The Hayden Planetarium was an instant smash hit. Opening in l935, it
drew record crowds to the Big Apple. Tourists happily trekked up from
midtown shows to 79th Street and Central Park West to witness the
heavens manipulated for their pleasure. The projections on the 75-foot
dome rotated in all directions, displaying the solar system and the
constellations from any point on earth at any given date in history.
This planetarium highlighted the World’s Fair in l939 and continued to
amaze patrons for the next three decades.
By l997 the old Hayden was torn down and a new dome began to be
constructed, yet no one really knew what would be inside. In 1998 six
different video and digital design companies sent bids for the
planetarium projection project, but no one at the Natural History
Museum could read them. Their scientists were more at home with
hieroglyphs than Fortran.
So Friedman, then an independent consultant, was invited in to review
the bids and select the graphics installer for the new Hayden
Planetarium. "I quickly saw that no one company had the stuff for the
job," recalls Friedman. "There were a handful who could project video
programs, showing a flat, linear movie."
"One other could play a computerized database in real time but it was
only a series of dots and lines . . . like the very first computer
games." Friedman decided that somewhere out there lay the next giant
step in planetarium technology and the museum gave him the go-ahead to
Thus early in l998, as director of engineering for the upcoming Hayden
Digital Dome, Friedman gathered 15 subcontractors into an inventive
team. The result was a breakthrough in both technology and experience.
In the old planetarium, the viewer sat earthbound, able to see the
virtual stars from any location, at any time on the globe. Now in the
new Hayden, for the first time, the viewer can move limitlessly
through a three-dimensional universe. He can study the moon while
moving past it; observe the Big Dipper, then pull back from it to the
edge of the galaxy. More than 118,000 stars are available to explore
from any point in the universe, including a zoom-in close study or
Such a quantum leap was scarcely achieved without a few stumbles. At
the very outset of the project, a private donor had donated several
million dollars for a specially made Zeiss Mark IX opto-mechanical
star projector, to replace the dumbbell-shaped machine at the center
of a traditional dome. "I had sought a totally digital scheme," says
Additionally came the problem of the dome. It is one thing to cast an
image on a flat screen, and pick a point to move through the images.
But when casting an image on a sphere, your computer must distort
every image to present a flow of sustained movement past a virtual
Eventually, using an Onyx II computer, the Zeiss, and seven CRT
projectors (the world’s largest costing $180,000 each,) the bugs were
ironed out and the dome stood ready on schedule. The immersive
experience of the universe awaited the public.
The Hayden was again a smash hit. Opening its doors on December 31,
l999, at the cusp of the new millennium, crowds surged into
Manhattan’s latest marvel. The Museum showed continuous half hour
shows 24/7 and still crowds lined the block. All those nervous
investors who had blanched at the $17 million price tag and almost
called off Friedman’s project three times, now sat grinning smugly.
For Friedman the cyber engineer, it was the launch into a heavenly
position. He and his staff of 16 like-minded engineers were hired to
maintain and continually upgrade the Hayden digital dome. Theirs was a
hive of innovation. New programs hit the screen: the Big Bang Theater,
a trip through The Virtual Universe, and "Are We Alone?" a search for
life that whisked viewers from earth’s oceans to the moons of Jupiter.
The crew endlessly tweaked the system and reveled in playing on the
graphic image’s cutting edge.
In 2001, Friedman realized that the "beast" – the $2 million Onyx main
frame computer system that generated the digital movie, was
unnecessary. As a replacement, he designed a digital disk recorder to
take all the projection’s data and play it back out, much like a VCR.
Unfortunately, the massive amount of stuff to be stored frightened off
all but one German firm that supplied the prototype gratis. Meanwhile,
along with all his technical meanderings, Aram Friedman fell
passionately in love with the stars. And their display became his
All good engineers, however, eventually build themselves out of a job.
The American Museum of Natural History now had 4.5 million visitors
annually thronging through its planetarium and other numerous halls.
The Hayden was the world’s best, board members kept saying. Do we
really have to keep reinventing this successful product? Shortly after
9/11, 2002, they decided not. The tourism bubble had burst, belts
needed tightening. With much gratitude and small severance, Friedman
and his team were let go.
For 18 months he worked for Evans & Sutherland, a Salt Lake City-based
leader in the visual imaging field that has just developed a new
generation of celestial display (www.es.com).
Ironically, Friedman had rejected the E&S bid when it sought to
install an early generation digital planetarium display system. (This
early generation machine, Digistar 2, is currently in use at the Fels
Planetarium.) E&S’s Digistar 3 afforded that giant step in celestial
viewing capability that previously had been available only to the
Hayden Digital Dome. It was a savings in cost and complexity. Instead
of being hardwired into a massively expensive mainframe computer,
Digistar 3 runs off of PC clusters. This set the stars technically
within reach of even a high school planetarium.
Astronomy is not new to high school curricula. Back in 1957 America
fell under a terrorizing attack. The Soviets launched over our heads
the first orbiting satellite in space. Though this vehicle remained
innocuously high above our soil, its every beep cast our nation into a
vast panic nonetheless. Why hadn’t good old American technology done
it first, everybody asked? What’s the matter with our science and
astronomical training? Defensively, the Eisenhower administration
ordered 1,000 planetarium/observatories to be built at various high
schools around the country from l958 through l960. Perhaps it worked:
American pride was reestablished 12 years later when Yankee footsteps
were the first on the moon.
Yet neither pride nor concrete lasts forever, and today those thousand
planetariums are crumbling and woefully obsolete. To renovate an
existing 1960s high school planetarium with traditional technology
(opto-mechanical rather than digital) would cost the local school
system at least $450,000. Ironically, to refurbish one with a digital
installation, could cost $175,000. But few local school boards can
pony up the necessary funds for any kind of planetarium repair.
Friedman pushed for the company to develop a microdome that a small
school could afford. "I repackaged the pieces that were there and
developed the optical end of it," he says. The hemisphere screen is 48
inches in diameter, and the computers fit into a suitcase.
Somewhere between hurry and frenzy, Friedman moves constantly beneath
seven overhead clocks ticking away the minutes at various global
locales. His office is less company headquarters, and more of an
engineer’s hive. Throughout his cramped quarters, he shifts among cell
phones, lap top, and the massive crates filled with cutting edge
Then, in the middle of this celestial show, my reverie is broken by
the phone ringing. Friedman leaps up, and, dumping the joystick in my
lap says "Here – go where you want." I would like to head for Alpha
Centuri, but I drive like a teenager handed his first car keys. I move
seldom where I aim. It takes practice, but nothing a high school
science teacher couldn’t quickly master.
My astronomical mentor gets off the phone and the bad news is
official. Just several days before our meeting, Friedman had been told
that the small dome would not be a profitable market for Evans &
You do not simply turn off Aram Friedman. At 47 he would like to spend
more time with his wife Amy and their two girls, Raisha and Nova, at
their Princeton Junction home. But, like Hayden, he believes that
everyone should gain that sincere and lively appreciation of our
universe. And he will not rest until they get the opportunity.
All day he remained on the phone with E & S executives, working out a
new deal. "As a big public corporation, it was not prudent for E&S to
be in this market," says Friedman, "but they agreed that I was in a
better position to put together a private company that could afford to
be in that market." His goal is to negotiate an Original Equipment
Manufacturer (OEM) agreement, allowing him to repackage and market the
portable microdome. Thus far, his former employer says that he can
sell the dome and Digistar 3 technology to schools and institutions
that do not already have planetariums.
Digital projectors, in contrast to the opto-mechanical systems, are
not limited to earth bound observation. "We have in our grasp, with
the digital systems, the ability to leave earth and view a universe
that is as scientifically accurate as we know today," says Friedman.
"We need to push ourselves and our viewers to higher expectations. And
people are smart. If you show it to them, they will get it."
Friedman demonstrates that his digital product is far more than a
stargazing dome. He slips in a new disc and we are transported to
ancient Egypt in IMAX style. Slowly we enter the temple of Karnak as
it was in the 15th dynasty and then the temple of Hathor. Suddenly the
goddess ages, eroding to the structure I recall when I last visited.
"We can travel not just through the universe and our seas," says
Friedman, "but we can tour DNA molecules or the interior of a
Neanderthal’s brain. It is a limitless teaching tool."
Interestingly, this transition from planetarium to master teaching
tool should satisfy both Friedman’s educational obsession and his
tinkering urges. Virtually all scientific graphic renderings
internationally use a protocol called open graphics language (open
GL.) For reasons of efficiency however, Digistar 3 employs Microsoft’s
Direct-X language. These liaison languages, which make hardware
machines obedient to software commands, are standardized and typically
Friedman’s new problem is to help the Digistar 3 comprehend the open
GL codes that currently, as he puts it, "have no guarantee of working
on Digistar 3." He sees this as an easy fix.
"I play a role in the industry," says Friedman. "I am an advocate for
scientifically accurate systems and I am trying to raise the
expectations of the public. All the arguments against digital systems
have pretty much been solved. Whether my competitors like it or not, I
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