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  Sep.05.18 TouchDesigner For Science Communication at the Gran Telescopio Canarias

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by Romano Corradi, Astrophysicist & GRANTECAN Director
Gran Telescopio Canarias

We are not video artists, nor graphic designers. We work at night, on the peak of a remote Atlantic island, looking upwards. Gran Telescopio Canarias (GRANTECAN or GTC), located on La Palma in the Canary Islands, is presently the largest optical telescope of the world. With GRANTECAN, every clear night we observe the sky in the effort to improve our knowledge of the Universe.


Communicating our discoveries to the society is an essential aspect of our mission and requires the ability to transmit information in an attractive way while maintaining some scientific rigour. Press releases, articles in paper journals, public talks, photo exhibitions, or videos are the standard way to do it, but some of these forms of communication are nowadays losing their effectiveness as compared to those that take advantage of modern audiovisual technologies.

For this reason, at GRANTECAN we are making the effort to improve our communication strategy by implementing immersive and interactive elements in our daily interaction with the public such as the experience that we offer to visitors (>10,000 every year despite the remote location of the telescope), public talks and exhibitions.

The "Firework galaxy" observed by GRANTECAN, composed over the telescope fly-eye mirror (made with replicators in TouchDesigner)

In this effort, we have been looking for a software to implement our communication projects. Finding an "all-in-one" development platform is a requirement for us, given our limited dedication that makes it difficult to deal with the learning (and unlearning) curves that would be associated with our non-intensive use of many different pieces of software. TouchDesigner immediately attracted our attention. It is powerful, flexible, has a nice architecture relying on a programming language that we commonly use (python), and allows us to implement most of the things we are looking for without a too strong dependence on additional external software.

Personally, the first practical project I decided to embark on, while learning TouchDesigner, was to devise an original way to give public talks, breaking free of the standards and of the limited creativity of powerpoint-like presentations. TouchDesigner allows a free and original approach.

The main distinctive element of a talk that gave on last August during a videomapping festival in mainland Spain is Leap Motion control of the presentation with the following additional features: 360-deg interactive viewer of the night sky; basic real-time and interactive animations of physical processes (e.g. collapse of a gas cloud and the nuclear fusion inside stars); subtle 3-D animations of astronomical images; and audio-reactive visualisation of the sounds that astronomers have been able to code from the vibrations of some stars.

Control panel of the presentation
Leap Motion controlled 360-degree viewer

As our knowledge of TouchDesigner increases, appetite also does. Next project is the transformation of the technical corridor where we introduce visitors to the telescope into a more immersive and interactive installation with multiple projectors (the project includes the development of a robot guide), where people feel like being at night in the telescope dome, or light-years away in the remote regions of the Universe that GRANTECAN is observing.

Any help from TouchDesigner experts would be of great help. Anybody out there keen to spend some time putting her or his skills at the service of science, helping us to communicate the wonders of the Universe?

Romano Corradi, astrophysicist & GRANTECAN Director
Contact: romano.corradi at gtc.iac.es

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