On Fourth of July this year, Sphere, owned by Sphere Entertainment and located at Las Vegas’ Venetian, illuminated the 580,000-square-foot Exosphere with a jaunty super-sized “Hello World” greeting, followed by an array of spectacular imagery, including fireworks, Stars & Stripes and vibrant visual scenes from underwater to the lunar surface. Sphere, which also features a 160,000-square foot interior LED 360-degree screen, is, according to the company, the largest LED screen in the world – large enough to be seen from space.
The Exosphere is also, as MSG Sports president/chief operating officer David Hopkinson noted, “a 360-degree canvas for brand storytelling … offering our partners an unparalleled opportunity to become part of the greatest show on earth.” The Exosphere is made up of approximately 1.2 million LED pucks, each of which contains 48 individual LED diodes, with each diode capable of displaying 256 colors. Each puck is spaced eight inches apart. The LED imagery is totally programmable, leading Guy Barnett, Sphere Entertainment senior vice president of brand strategy and creative development, to comment that, “the Exosphere is more than a screen or a billboard – it is living architecture.”
Audiences will soon have the chance to experience Sphere’s interior, which can accommodate almost 20,000 attendees: on September 29, via a partnership of Sphere Entertainment and Live Nation, Irish rock band U2 will present “U2: UV Achtung Baby Live at Sphere.” Online sales began on May 12, there will be a total of 25 shows from September 29 through December 16, 2023.
The immersive, sci-fi “Postcard from Earth,” from Academy Award winner director Darren Aronofsky, is set to debut October 6 this year, the first of many planned 60-minute Sphere Experiences. “At its best, cinema is an immersive medium that transports the audience out of their regular life, whether that’s into fantasy and escapism, another place and time or another person’s subjective experience,” Aronofsky explains. “Sphere is an attempt to dial up that immersion.” Sphere’s immersive LED display offers a 19,000 x 13,500-pixel resolution (about 16K).
One of Sphere’s unique features is its sound system – dubbed Sphere Immersive Sound. Sphere Studios partnered with German-based advanced audio company Holoplot, to take advantage of the latter’s spatial audio tools and proprietary algorithms including its Holoplot X1 Matrix array loudspeaker module and its 3D Audio-Beamforming and Wave Field Synthesis technologies. These technologies compensate for audio transmission losses in such an immense interior space.
The patented Audio-Beamforming also provides an algorithm for sending unique audio content to specific locations, creating the possibility of transmitting different languages, music, or sound effects to specific areas of the venue. Sphere’s audio system is comprised of 1,586 permanently installed speakers and 300 mobile loudspeaker modules, for a total of 167,000 speaker drivers weighing 395,120 pounds. Almost the entire system is hidden behind the interior LED display. Sphere Immersive Sound was first installed at New York City’s Beacon Theater and then customized and scaled up for Sphere. In addition to advanced visual and audio systems, Sphere offers audiences multi-sensory features including scent and breezes as well as haptic technologies – the rumble of an earthquake or launch of a rocket ship – in 10,000 of the seats.
Sphere was designed by Kansas City, Missouri-based architectural design firm Populous, which has spearheaded dozens of design/builds of Olympic Games and Super Bowls, as well as World Cup venues, stadiums, and performance and e-sports spaces. The design and construction of Sphere – which began in 2018 but was sidelined by the COVID-19 pandemic – offers a model for developing large-scale immersive entertainment spaces, especially given its specialized audio capabilities for concerts and musicians. Sphere reportedly cost $2.3 billion to design and construct.
But what will make Sphere come alive is content, and that’s the purview of Sphere Studios, which launched in June this year and is dedicated to “developing the next generation of original immersive entertainment” exclusively for Sphere. Located in Burbank, California, Sphere Studios is a 68,000-square-foot lot offering facilities for production, editing, post-production, audio mixing sound stages and 3D printing labs. The production stage isn’t the typical Hollywood sound stage. This one is a 28,000-square-foot, 100-foot-high geodesic dome, dubbed Big Dome, which will enable creatives, producers, and executives to experience an analog of Big Sky, its big brother Sphere. Unlike Sphere’s 20,000-person capacity, Big Dome has only a few rows of seating, atop a two-story platform.
Sphere Studios also built the ultra-high resolution Big Sky camera as a content creation tool for upcoming Sphere Experiences. According to Big Sky lead architect Deanan DaSilva, the new camera took 18 months to develop in-house from conception to completion. DaSilva told the Las Vegas Review-Journal, which toured the facility and saw a demonstration, that Big Sky “was built from scratch with no off-the-shelf components.” Big Sky is paired with SphereLab processing system, which captures images via a single unit tethered to a recorder. The image-processing software was custom built as were “custom lenses,” which DaSilva dubs “the sharpest cinema lenses ever created.” The result, he says, “a giant leap forward for imaging.” “Big Sky allows us to capture cinematic content at a level of detail never before possible, opening up extraordinary possibilities and pushing immersive imaging technology forward in a way that will resonate throughout the entertainment industry.”
Before Big Sky was created, Sphere Studio used the Array – 11 off-the-shelf high-resolution cameras whose lenses were pointed in multiple directions. With the Array, however, the content needed to be processed and digitally stitched, making it a less-than-ideal capture medium for Sphere’s 360-degree LED screen. The size, bulk and awkwardness of using the Array led to the realization that the team would have to build its own image capture system.
According to the Review-Journal, Big Sky can capture up to 120 frames-per-second in an 18K square format; at full-resolution, the recorder handles “60 fps uncompressed footage at 30 gigabytes-per-second, or 120 fps at 50 gigabytes-per-second,” recorded to a “custom 32-terabyte media magazine,” capable of handling 600 gigabits per second of network connectivity, as well as “built-in media duplication, to accelerate and simplify on-set and postproduction workflows.” Crews have reportedly used cabling up to 1-kilometer long and “because the camera can be controlled from either end, with proper planning, a camera could be suspended from the top of a crane or submerged underwater from a boat.”
To get a better idea during production of how footage will look once it’s in Sphere, “Sphere technicians also have devised headset goggles to preview” content. DaSilva says that creatives can see what they are shooting in real-time to “get a sense for how to frame, what things look like and visualize what you’re shooting.”
Going forward, one thing that both The Venetian president Lucas Watson and MSG’s Hopkinson mentioned is how the Exosphere can generate revenue via brand/advertising content. According to Watson, the company is pitching prototype ads to national brands. One of the selling points to potential advertisers is that Las Vegas visitors – 40+ million each year – can share Exosphere content via social media platforms such as Instagram, TikTok and YouTube.
Regarding content for the interior, the U2 opening live concert is just the beginning. Watson reveals that MSG Entertainment is already reaching out to “a lengthy list” of performers, promising “between four and six residency headliners playing every year at Sphere,” each playing 10 to 14 performances.