Research in Giant Screen

May 28th, 2015

In the more than forty years since the first IMAX® theater opened at Ontario Place in Canada in 1971, and the first dome IMAX® theater opened at the Reuben H. Fleet Science Center in San Diego in 1973, these intensely visual engaging films have become a part of the informal learning community. Learners from children to adults have had the opportunity to engage with awe-inspiring images of space, technology, and nature, and art. As of December 2013, IMAX® reported that there were 837 IMAX® theatres (701 commercial multiplexes, 19 commercial destinations and 117 institutions) in 57 countries; it is estimated that more than 1 billion people have seen an IMAX® film (IMAX®, 2015). Recognizing that there are now a number of companies that manufacture projection systems and cameras to produce these films, the industry now refers to itself as “giant screen.” Just as Kleenex® and Xerox® stand in for the range of available facial tissue and copier products, giant screen films are often generically referenced as IMAX® films, as the filmmakers who invented the first system that projected images on the giant screen, and who produced the first films in the format, eventually founded IMAX® Corporation. Regardless of what you call them, though, the films shown in these purpose-built giant screen theaters share the same characteristics of scale, affect, experience and content. For a medium that is so strongly connected with education—indeed, the giant screen industry is to a great degree predicated on its unique ability to impact learning—there has been little formal research on the outputs and outcomes of watching these films. Although formative and summative evaluations of the films are regularly incorporated into the development and production process, research on such issues as cognition, affect and behavior had not been systematically pursued.

To redress this lack of research, and with support from the National Science Foundation (DRL 1341016), the Giant Screen Cinema Association (GSCA), and the Association of Science and Technology Centers (ASTC), in October 2013 giant screen industry leaders and stakeholders met to develop a research to practice agenda for the giant screen industry. The Setting the Agenda for Giant Screen one day workshop developed from many years of discussions about the potential of the giant screen format to educate, engage and entertain, and responded to the multiple calls for research on giant screen films (Fraser et. al., 2012; Heimlich, Sickler & Yocco, 2010; Lantz, 2011; Schnall, Hedge & Weaver, 2012). It followed on the efforts of the Center for Advancement of Informal Science Education (CAISE) and others to explore how practice-based research can promote innovation. The goal of the workshop was to create a dynamic document that detailed key questions for giant screen research, and through distribution and promotion to the wider community for reflection and comment would create a network of colleagues to support and participate in giant screen research.

Workshop outcomes: From agenda to roadmap

After the workshop and through some discussions with CAISE, it emerged that the word “agenda” may be too prescriptive, and the decision was made to recast the workshop outcome as a research roadmap. This simple change of name recognizes that the workshop product is a fluid, living document that is responsive to the needs of the community, rather than attempting to drive them.

During the workshop breakout sessions, participants were asked to identify key research issues, define potential research questions and develop a list of constraints and barriers to promoting a research roadmap. Participants identified five broad GS research topics: audience, impact, learning, technology, and industry. Importantly, participants noted that the research roadmap should consider who the research is for, what research can be most easily undertaken, which research is most critical and how to ensure the sharing of data and evidence among GS stakeholders. They recognized that the research roadmap will only be successful if stakeholders understand what research is and is not, that the industry and stakeholders support the roadmap, that funding must be available to support research programs, and that opportunity arises from a research roadmap with the potential to envision a successful future, as opposed to only justifying past and extant practice. Throughout the Workshop, participants continually emphasized that a roadmap alone was not sufficient to ensure the successful implementation of a research program. They identified these next steps as being key to the success of such a roadmap:

  • Creation of a research mindset in the GS community that recognizes that:
    • research should be grounded in notions of what drives practice
    • research should have intentionality and drive the field forward
    • research is generative
    • that research must be supported by a network of researchers and practitioners.Stakeholder consensus in the need and value for research on GS, including, leadership from within the GS community to promote and support research programs.
  • Building capacity for an active research program by:
    • encouraging participation by all segments of GS industry
    • creating partnerships between the GS industry, researchers and collegial organizations and
    • developing a research network to disseminate research results
  • Funding to support an active, ongoing research program
  • Establishment of reflective process that builds upon past success and reflects future directions

Next steps

Over the more than 13 years that I have been aligned with the giant screen industry as an academic researcher, it has become evident that the interest in and willingness to pursue research has evolved. Whether this change is attributable to pure interest in answering research questions, to the need on the behalf of funders to prove value, or to promote differentiation due to competition from other media formats, the outcome is still the same: giant screen research is being increasingly promoted and pursued within the industry.

Following on the workshop, GSCA and ASTC continue to foster the relationship between the film and museum communities through the Museum Screens Community of Practice (CoP). This CoP was formed to serve as a meeting place to address the unanswered questions related to questions such as learning, affect and impact of immersive screen technologies. GSCA also has linked to the fulldome community by engaging with Immersive Media Entertainment Research Science and the Arts (IMERSA). And in 2014 GSCA established the Research Task Force, whose mission is to promote and implement research within its stakeholders on questions of value to the industry.

After 40 years of creating engaging films, the giant screen industry has begun to take significant steps towards recognizing the role and value of research in practice. Future success will be predicated on the creation of a vital, active community of giant screen stakeholders: filmmakers, exhibitors, educators and researchers. To follow the progress and process of the GSCA and other research roadmaps and agendas, visit the CAISE website Research Agendas landing page.


Fraser, J., Heimlich, J.E., Jacobsen, J., Yocco, V., Sickler, J., Kisiel, J., Nucci, M., Jones, L.F. Stahl, J. (2012): Giant screen film and science learning in museums. Museum Management and Curatorship, 27, 179-195.

Heimlich, J.E., Sickler, J. & Yocco, V. (2010).”>Influence of immersion on visitor learning; Maya Skies Research Report.

IMAX. (2015). About IMAX®. Accessible at

Lantz, E. (2011). Planetarium of the future. Curator: The Museum Journal, 54, 293-312.

Schnall, S., Hedge, C. & Weaver, R. (2012) The Immersive Virtual Environment of the digital fulldome: Considerations of relevant psychological processes. International Journal of Human-Computer Studies. 70,561–575