Wits University and mining firm Anglo American have invested R75 million in funding the refurbishment, expansion and digitalisation of the 62-year-old Johannesburg Planetarium.
It will be transformed into a new, future-savvy, multidisciplinary research, training and science facility.
Announced at an event last night, the new Wits Anglo American Digital Dome aims to provide Wits University students, researchers and citizens of Johannesburg with access to a 360-degree visual experience in a digital hub.
They will learn about astronomy and related fields through immersive technology in multi-dimensional, cross-disciplinary worlds.
According to a statement, for the past 62 years, theWits University-based Planetarium has entertained, inspired and educated hundreds of thousands of learners from all over Gauteng and beyond. Visitors were introduced to the night sky, the solar system and the Milky Way galaxy through shows at the theatre.
With the new Wits Anglo American Digital Dome, Wits University says it hopes to continue inspiring people and expand it to other scientific disciplinesthrough the use of digital technology − from climate modelling and artificial intelligence applications, to new avenues in the digital arts.
The project, which will be built in three phases, is expected to officially open to members of the public in 2024.
“We are creating a high-tech 360-degree IMAX-like theatre − just better,” says professor Roger Deane, director of the Wits Centre for Astrophysics and Square Kilometre Array chair in Radio Astronomy at Wits.
“The Digital Dome will provide an incredible theatre experience, but it will also serve a greater purpose – it will assist researchers across all disciplines to visualise data in a profound way.
“Many researchers across various fields feel as if they are drowning in data, which is coupled with the challenge of data-sets becoming more complex and more multi-dimensional.
“A facility like the new Wits Anglo American Digital Dome is a way of honing a more intuitive and immersive understanding of big data, where we will be able to visualise our work, whether it is in teaching anatomy to first-year medical students, visualising the myriad particle showers in the Large Hadron Collider at CERN, exploring the first galaxies in the Universe, or testing new games, built by Wits gaming design students.”
Deane has served as chair of the Digital Dome Working Group, which includes leading artificial intelligence researchers, scientists, digital artists and quantum computing engineers.
The university’s history is inextricably linked with that of the mining industry and the development of the City of Johannesburg for over 100 years.
Together, Wits and Anglo American have provided R75 million to fund the first two stages of the three-stage project, with the Wits University Council committing R20 million and Anglo American providing R55 million.
During the first stage, the existing Planetarium will be refurbished and digitised with a new, state-of-the-art digital projection system, auditorium seating, and a science and technology exploratorium, notes Wits.
The second stage will see a north wing expansion for a new suite of operational offices, an exhibition area, as well as a seminar room and meeting space for Digital Dome show planning and design.
In the third and final stage, which is yet to be funded, a new east wing research-focused building will house open-plan office space for visiting multidisciplinary research teams to interface with in-house data visualisation and Digital Dome show rendering experts.
According to Wits, it will include a creative studio, film and sound production facilities, to enable Wits to develop much of its science engagement digital content on site. This stage will be integrated with the Wits Football Stadium, and will include a media viewing deck and rooftop event space.
Speaking last night, Duncan Wanblad, CEO of Anglo American, said: “For a very long time now, supporting equitable access to education has been a priority for us as a business. As one of Africa’s leading universities, Wits continues to play a vital role in providing access to education, not only to its students but the broader South African public too.
“The new Wits Anglo American Digital Dome will be a truly world-class and accessible centre that will inspire generations to take an active interest in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics disciplines and the digital arts. I am also delighted that this project tangibly builds on our legacy in Johannesburg by contributing towards the city’s aspirations to become a smart African city.”
The new high-tech Digital Dome catapults Johannesburg Planetarium into the future.