The Las Vegas Sphere officially opened on September 29, with U2:UV Achtung Baby Live at Sphere heralding in what Sphere stakeholders have called a “next-generation entertainment medium”, with a 160,000 square foot interior LED display plane and 167,000 individually amplified loudspeaker drivers.
The highly-anticipated 25-date run of U2 shows has now been extended to 36, and is said to be “reinventing the live music experience” at what’s billed as “the world’s most cutting-edge venue”. But what’s the experience actually like, and does it live up to the hype? Installation was lucky enough to have boots on the ground for the third night of the show on October 1, and can confirm that The Sphere is every bit as good as the owners will have you believe.
“The digital experience of Sphere is hard to describe,” explains Los Angeles-based artist, mental health advocate, and friend of Installation TrustyScribe. “You think you’ve seen large screens with beautiful images in the past, but this surpasses that in ways that you can’t understand without standing in the middle of it. It’s everywhere! I would go from watching the band to a slack-jawed stare up into the heavens of what was happening all around me.
“And as magical as the whole experience is, I couldn’t help wondering if U2 were just scratching the surface of what The Sphere can actually do. As an artist I tend to see things as they are and as they can be, and my creative brain was reeling at the possibilities for what will come next.
“The visual journey ranges from complex digital collage, to photo-real video that takes your breath away. Two sprawling landscapes play a part of the show, one dark with a vibrant flag of fire, which felt like it was warming the room, and later a flag of smoke set upon a dawn that evokes memories of staying up late with a new love to greet the sun. The collective experience of U2 and this striking imagery creates a completely immersive journey, igniting all the senses.”
Marc Connor, another close friend of Installation and London-based president of Rockstar Management, Jamie Cullum’s representatives, agrees that the visuals were worth the entry fee alone.
“The digital ‘walls’ looked like a cement-lined silo,” he says. “They genuinely looked like walls, heading way up high to a hole through which you could see the sky. It was only by walking right up to the ‘wall’ that you could see it was a digital representation of one; and, of course, there wasn’t actually a hole in the roof of The Sphere!
“As the gig began, a helicopter appeared to fly over the ‘hole’ in the roof (it was a digital representation, of course!). And as the band took to the stage, the illusionary cement wall was split apart, a huge ‘OH!!’ moment for most of the audience.
“Overall, the digital imagery made the space look way taller than it was, something they played with to great effect during the show; perspective was messed with brilliantly. During an early song, featuring a Matrix-style pattern of coloured words and numbers that rose to the heavens and then collapsed downwards, it very much felt as if the ceiling was falling in on our heads!
“Another song used incredible hi-def imagery that swirled around the room, before multiplying fractually and falling down into the floor. It gave the feeling that we were all moving up, like a VR ride at Disneyland. For a moment you felt as if we were on some moving platform heading upwards. Quite disorienting but very clever.”
U2 are certainly utilising every part of Sphere’s wraparound LED screen – the world’s largest and highest-resolution – creating a gallery showcasing bespoke art from renowned artists including Es Devlin (who Connor’s Rockstar Management have worked with previously: “there is no doubting her genius,” he says), John Gerrard, Marco Brambilla, and Industrial Light & Magic; all while performing on a Brian Eno-inspired turntable stage.
The run of shows is celebrating the band’s acclaimed Achtung Baby album, as well as its accompanying industry-defining ZOO TV Tour which raised the touring bar back in 1991 – with key songs from other albums also featuring. The band is also performing new song Atomic City, a homage to the magnetic spirit of 70’s post-punk with a nod to Blondie’s Atomic, a band which worked with Giorgio Moroder, and inspired and influenced U2 (although he ironically had nothing to do with Atomic!). Atomic City is itself a 1950s nickname for Las Vegas, from a time when nuclear fascination swept the nation and the city promoted itself as a centre of atomic tourism due to its proximity to the Nevada Test Site.
The Sphere’s Immersive Sound is, or course, powered by HOLOPLOT (see below), the world’s largest, fully integrated concert-grade audio system, specifically developed for Sphere’s unique curved interior, which is said to provide “crystal-clear”, individualised sound to every seat. But how did friends of Installation Marc and Trusty find the audio?
“One thing we noticed was that the stage was fairly bare,” said Trusty. “There weren’t the usual speakers and stacks, but instead just the instruments and mics. Everything else was squirrelled away behind the scenes. And when the show started, the levels were perfect. It was never too loud, but the music seemed to engulf us, even wrap its arms around us.”
Connor is more circumspect: “Very interesting and odd to see a huge band with no visible speaker stacks! The audio is hard to comment upon as we were down the ‘pit’ at the front, and I guess the ‘magic’ is how good it sounds if you’re in the Gods. And if you’re up at the back then you are very high.
“The seating is much more akin to an IMAX cinema than an arena venue. That perhaps makes it easier to understand the ‘screen’ which is in front of you, to the sides and all the way over your head. Many songs just used the visuals to make the band visible to those not in the pit.”
Connor raises a good point with regard to the audio, as neither he or Trusty were able to experience HOLOPLOT’s seat-targeted audio, given that they both enjoyed the gig near the front, in what they termed the ‘pit’. That said, they both report that the audio was nothing less than on point throughout (“perfect” in Trusty’s words), and it’s testament to the refinement of the HOLOPLOT system that they had little else to comment upon; how often have we all been let down by audio in large venues, where audio reverberates off walls, undermining the experience? No such complaints here, just confirmation that the sound “engulfs”, throwing its arms around the audience; Tryin’ To Throw Your Arms Around The World like the excellent Actung Baby track.
Sphere Immersive Sound is powered by HOLOPLOT, touted as the “world’s most advanced audio system”, and said to provide “crystal-clear”, individualised sound to every seat in Sphere. Sphere Immersive Sound is said to be the world’s largest, fully integrated concert-grade audio system, “revolutionising” immersive audio experiences.
Sphere Immersive Sound was specifically developed for Sphere’s unique curved interior. The system consists of approximately 1,600 permanently installed and 300 mobile HOLOPLOT X1 Matrix Array loudspeaker modules and includes a total of 167,000 individually amplified loudspeaker drivers. The system utilises HOLOPLOT’s next-generation 3D Audio-Beamforming and Wave Field Synthesis tech.
This is said to result in controlled, consistent, and crystal-clear concert-grade audio for audiences of up to 20,000 people, providing each audience member with a truly exceptional and personalised listening experience. The entire sound system is completely hidden behind Sphere’s 160,000 square foot interior LED display plane. Any audio transmission losses are fully compensated for by HOLOPLOT’s algorithms in the optimisation engine, resulting in clear, full-range sound with virtually no coloration and a completely unobstructed visual LED surface – which wraps up, over and around the audience and combines with Sphere Immersive Sound to create a fully immersive environment.
HOLOPLOT’s patented 3D Audio-Beamforming technology uses intelligent software algorithms to create unique, highly controlled, and more efficient soundwaves than conventional speakers, ensuring that levels and quality remain consistent from point of origin to destination – even over large distances. HOLOPLOT’s proprietary beamforming technology can also simultaneously send unique audio content to specific locations in the venue, creating the possibility for different sections to hear completely different content – such as languages, music, or sound effects – offering limitless opportunities for truly customised and immersive audio experiences.
Powersoft is contributing immersive haptic technology, integrated within the venue’s 10,000 haptic seats, as part of Sphere Immersive Sound.
Sphere Immersive Sound is also powered by 167,000 channels of amplification provided by Powersoft’s compact, ultra-high-efficiency 16-channel amplifier solutions that are integrated into the venue’s HOLOPLOT X1 audio system. The ultra-high-efficiency amplifier solutions achieve approximately 40 percent energy savings compared to traditional amplifiers, minimising environmental impact without compromising sound quality.
Powersoft also provided patented IPAL (Integrated Powered Adaptive Loudspeaker) technology used in the X1 system’s subs. An IPAL-equipped system is said to offer “unprecedented acoustic performance.
Ahead of the official launch of Sphere for the U2 residency, Sphere Entertainment Co announced that DreamWorks Animation was to be the first movie studio to launch a brand campaign specifically designed for the Exosphere – the fully programmable LED exterior of Sphere – in support of DreamWorks’ action-packed new film in the Trolls musical blockbuster franchise, Trolls Band Together, which hit US cinemas nationwide on November 17.
The largest LED screen on Earth, the Exosphere consists of approximately 1.2 million LED pucks across 580,000 square feet of surface. Each puck contains 48 individual LED diodes, with each diode capable of displaying 256 million different colours.
“Approaching the Sphere from the outside was incredible, as it [the Exosphere] lights up the Vegas night,” enthuses Trusty when discussing his arrival ahead of the U2 gig. “But walking into the glowing, cavernous space took my breath away. It’s massive, and awe inspiring.”
Marc is equally as effusive: “The venue and tech are incredible,” he says. “And U2 are the perfect band and creative team to create the required [press coverage] impact for the launch. With The Sphere, the limits of what is possible have shifted forward by a giant leap. The only limitations are imagination, time and budget.
“In the end I think the best use of the space has yet to come, and will be down to a simple but impactful idea. U2 have set the bar high, and I’m so very glad I got to see it. There has been talk of a Sphere in Stratford, London. Not sure where that has got to. But it would be great if you didn’t have to go to Nevada to enjoy the experience.”
Indeed, the Vegas Sphere’s developers Madison Square Garden Entertainment Corp (MSG Entertainment) is still keen on transforming an undeveloped site in the heart of Stratford, East London, into London’s Sphere, an £800m “state-of-the-art music and entertainment venue that will pioneer the next generation of immersive experiences”.
The proposed 300ft-high Sphere, which is set to broadcast animated adverts for 25 years (explaining why locals have been offered blackout blinds!), will have room for 21,500 spectators and be, like its Vegas sibling, covered in thousands of LED screens.
The project has been approved by the London Legacy Development Corporation (LLDC), which oversees the future development of the former Olympic Park in Stratford –although the proposals still have to be signed off by the Mayor of London Sadiq Khan, and the Levelling Up Secretary Michael Gove, before construction can kick off. If the project is given the green light. it is estimated that it will take three years to build.
Meanwhile, back in Vegas, Darren Aronofsky’s Postcard from Earth is certainly taking full advantage of Sphere’s experiential, next-gen technologies to transport audiences and engage the senses, utilising the interior LED display plane that wraps up, over, and around the audience to create a fully immersive visual environment. At 16K x 16K, it is the highest resolution LED screen in the world.
Postcard from Earth is also the first production to feature the venue’s multi-sensory 4D technologies. This includes immersive seats with an infrasound haptic system, and environmental effects to rouse the senses – the feeling of a cool breeze and familiar scents – which help audiences conjure the feeling of being there.
The size and scale of Sphere required a playback engine like no other system in the world. Behind the scenes at Sphere, 7thSense’s new suite of products, collectively known as the ‘Performer Range,’ collaboratively breathes life into the LED displays.
“Sphere’s LED displays redefine the meaning of immersive,” said David Dibble, CEO of MSG Ventures, a division of Sphere Entertainment – and one of Installation‘s Pro AV Watch List 2023 winners). “On the interior, never has an LED screen combined this immense scale and field of view with this level of clarity, while the exterior is a dynamic canvas that has already become a new global landmark. 7thSense has been a valued partner in delivering high-quality video playback solutions for MSG for over a decade, and we trusted the team to work closely with us and push their technologies even further to meet the unique demands of Sphere. The result is an experience that takes audiences from simply watching content on an LED screen, to feeling like they have been transported to new places.”
Richard Brown, CTO, 7thSense added: “With the opening of Sphere in Las Vegas, we are excited to introduce our new Performer range, including Actor media server, Juggler pixel processor, and Conjurer – our generative media solution. Developed over several years with a focus on the evolving landscape of video technology, and the challenging workflow requirements associated with a media storage and playback system needed for a project the size of Sphere, these products are intricately designed to leverage SMPTE ST 2110 IP video streaming.”
Check out Trusty’s work at www.artistxo.com . Connor’s Rockstar can be found at www.rockstar.management.