Welcome back to MangoBot, a biweekly column about Asian futurism by TokyoMango blogger Lisa Katayama. The International Space Station is flying straight at me. "This is a glimpse into the future," a voice says from somewhere above my head. "This is what the ISS will look like when it's completed in 2010." The giant silver ship floats past my head and out of my field of vision, and suddenly, I'm zooming out from the Earth into a sea of auroras and planets. "This is dark matter," the voice says as giant dense blue blobs dance around the room. "It's heavy, and constantly changing shapes because of that." I want to reach out and touch them — does dark matter feel more like jello or marshmallows? — but before I can, we're flying outwards again, past all the other planets in our solar system, visiting the comets in the Oort Cloud, and into a giant sky full of constellations. We dance around the constellations for a few minutes, checking them out from all sides, before heading out to the farthest reaches of the Milky Way, then past our galaxy to see an infinite number of galaxies. I'm sitting in the back row of a brand new theater called the Synra Dome, getting a private screening of one of the coolest 3D planetarium technologies ever, realizing just how incredibly tiny and insignificant I am. Tokyo's Science Museum is a half-century old government-run entity situated in a building next to the Imperial Palace. It's a neat little museum in a gray building shaped like a star, that has a treasure trove of fun interactive exhibits, like swirling cylindrical tunnels for testing forces of balance and labs where you can do crafts with lasers or get advice from a humanoid robot. For 12 years, the small theater space on the 4th floor was an ordinary Imax theater where scientists from across the country would come and give sessions on the latest breakthroughs in biology, chemistry, and nanotechnology. It was only in late August that it took on its current form. Most of the magic of Synra Dome is made by two guys, Toshiyuki Takahei and Hikaru Okuda. Okuda set up the hardware; Takahei does all the software programming, including hooking the images up with complex calculations done by a giant supercomputer called the MDM, Molecular Dynamics Machine, which sits just outside the theater. Back when he was a researcher at Riken, one of the top scientific research entities in the nation, Takahei's job was to translate supercomputer work into visuals. "Usually, museums just display computers. We thought that would be a waste, so we put it to work," he says. By combining his knowledge of supercomputers with images created by Sweden's Uniview software and the expertise of scientists who study the collision of galaxies, he is able to translate a normally hard-to-grasp concepts into multi-dimensional short clips about the universe that even kids can understand. "We're probably the first to make this in 3D and to connect it to a supercomputer," Takahei says proudly. Synra uses twelve projectors, each connected to a PC, to blast images onto a seamless 33-foot, 3000x3000 pixel screen. Conventional planetarium screens are made by putting flat aluminum panels together; this one doesn't have single screw. I'm watching the collision of galaxies through Infitec 3D glasses, a $200/piece accessory that not only makes things pop out in front of you but creates the illusion that everything is moving all around you. The presenters use PlayStation 2 controllers to zoom in, out, and sideways, and to change points of views more dynamically. The Synra Dome isn't just a cool planetarium showing space-themed stuff. After admiring the birds-eye view of the galaxy, Im'm taken into the microscopic world inside a human cell. "The giant flowers are your DNA," says the voice as we float past giant mitochondria and a glowing yellow nucleus. As we zoom past colorful amino acids and ribosome machines that look like spaceships, I'm briefly reminded of a Takashi Murakami painting. But even Murakami didn't think to take his spectators on a ride on a ribosome spaceship. When it's all over, I step out of Synra Dome completely blown out of my mind. The trippy music, the giant fireballs dancing and colliding and forming galaxies in front of my face, and the God-like voice (actually Takahei's, but I completely forgot it was human when I was in there) was a total out-of-body experience, and I'm amazed that these two humble, ordinary-looking dudes just took me there with a PS2 controller. When I ask them how in the world they put all this together so flawlessly, the two look at each other and grin. "We're old friends," Okuda says. "It still feels like we're just putting together an exhibit for the school science fair." Images by The Science Museum, Yusuke Aoyama, and me.
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