Thoughts on Selecting a Planetarium System

2018-03-08 / Karrie Berglund / Selecting a Planetarium

Blueprint

As a vendor of digital planetarium systems, we are sometimes asked for advice on selecting a planetarium system. Below are some suggestions I like to share with people.

Things to think about before starting your research:

  • Who is your primary audience? Will you be teaching astronomy PhD candidates who need high level software functionality? Or will you mostly be doing basic “Tonight's Sky” shows for the general public?
  • Will you do mostly live and interactive programs, or will you mainly show prerecorded content? If live, interactive programs will make up most of your schedule, then interface design should be a key consideration.
  • Who will be running the system? For school-based planetariums, middle or high school students sometimes do programs for elementary students. If students will lead programs, ease of use is critical.
  • Do you want to be able to move around the dome as you teach, so that you can interact with all audience members? If so, you will want to look for systems that are untethered, like our Digitarium systems.
  • Do you need other components such as cove lights, audio systems, etc.? Usually you will want to buy these as part of a package so that they all integrate perfectly.

After making these decisions, it's time to comparison-shop. I recommend starting with a simple web search for vendors. If there are other planetariums in your area, ask for suggested vendors—and for vendors with whom they have had bad experiences.

Questions about vendors/systems under consideration:

  • References of similar customers—if you are a university-based planetarium, ask for three to five university customers.
  • What is the reputation of the vendor? Do they have a local office or dealer? We've heard horror stories of organizations buying systems from overseas that were dead on arrival; the vendor did not provide any support and the customer lost their entire investment, with no practical recourse.
  • Is there curriculum available? For what ages? Is it digital (part of the system)? Is it easy to get started teaching right away?
  • See and test drive every system you're seriously considering. Attend a regional planetarium conference, as most large vendors exhibit at these. Nothing compares to a hands-on trial to determine if the equipment will meet YOUR needs.
  • How large is the vendor's customer base? Can customers communicate directly with each other? If so, how?
  • What is the length of the standard warranty period? What is covered?
  • What is the estimated life of the system? Are there consumable expenses, like projector lamps?
  • Does the system require a separate air-conditioned server room? This can be quite expensive.
  • Is there an annual maintenance contract? If so, how much does it cost, and what is covered?
  • What is the cost for on-going support? What types of support are available?
  • Software updates are critical, as these keep your system capabilities relevant. Is there a cost for these? What software is covered?
  • Does the vendor develop their own simulation software, or are they dependent on a third party?
  • Are you interested in being able to create your own content? If so, how is this accomplished?

Finally, when the time comes to make a decision, make sure that you are keeping your mind open:

  • Take vendors' comments about competitors with a healthy dose of skepticism. After all, it's in their best interest to deter you from looking at other companies.
  • If you go to bid, you need to clearly define your minimum requirements to meet your needs. Otherwise you could end up with a system that doesn't work for you.
  • On the other hand, do not overspecify bid requirements. Some of our competitors encourage customers to write requirements so specific that only their company meets all requirements. Do you really care about the cone thickness of your speakers? Limiting the competition with overly restrictive specifications only benefits the vendor, not you.

Need more information or suggestions? Feel free to contact me: karrie AT DigitalisEducation.com

About the Author

Karrie is Director of Education and a co-founder of Digitalis. She spearheads LIPS and is often on the road at conferences. She writes the LIP Service column for the IPS Planetarian professional journal and leads the IPS Vision 2020 Professional Development team.

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