Look Up: Clouds Could be the Next Movie Screens

An abandoned military strategy leads to the first “cloud movie”

Galloping horse features in first cloud movie

What if instead of going to a movie theater, you could look up instead? That dream could soon be reality, write New Scientist’s Liz Elise and Kat Austen, thanks to a new collaboration between an artist, scientists and other curious minds that’s projecting film onto clouds for the first time.

The “cloud movie” is part of Project Nimbus, which was spearheaded by artist Dave Lynch (no relation to the filmmaker David Lynch). Almost a decade ago, write Elise and Austen, Lynch was studying for a master’s degree when he discovered a security studies paper that laid out proposals for non-lethal weapons. One of the proposed military strategies involved “the projection of the image of an ancient god over an enemy capitol whose publications have been seized and used against it in a massive psychological operation.”

Far-fetched, sure, but for Lynch, it was a catalyst. Elise and Austen report that he found inspiration in the idea of a terrifying, or perhaps just entertaining, cloud projection. But Lynch soon learned that it wouldn’t be that easy to just beam a movie onto a cloud. Early attempts were too weak, too

Working with a team of experts Lynch describes as “pilots, scientists, makers, early cinema specialists, weapons experts, cultural theorists, artists, sailors, and cloud appreciators,” Lynch turned to lasers and a vintage film technique called a zoopraxiscope to create his cloud movies.

A zoopraxiscope, which was one of the oldest projectors, used a spinning disk to produce a moving image, which was projected through slits in the film disk. Together with laser experts, Lynch developed a modern-day laser zoopraxiscope that replaces the traditional disc slits that project images on a screen with lenses that can project a sharp image onto a nebulous cloud.

The result was a galloping horse (a tribute to the inventor of the zoopraxiscope, whose first movie proved that horses do pick up all four feet when they gallop) projected on a cloud from a flying plane with green lasers. Think of it as a moving improvement on the bat signal — and vintage projection technologies that only managed to get still images off the ground. For now, Lynch’s projections can only be seen from the skies, but there’s no telling how powerful the technology might come — or whether it could redefine the idea of movies existing “in the cloud” in the future.

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