Over the weekend, U2 performed the inaugural concert to open Las Vegas’ wackiest tourist attraction: an enormous, immersive orb wrapped with more than 700,000 square feet of video screens. Will The Sphere revolutionise the future of live entertainment?
Researched by: Nirmal Bhansali & Aarthi Ramnath
Say hello to The Sphere
And this gives you a sense of the interior:
Kinda crazy, right? Ok, onto the deets of this astonishing piece of architecture.
The specs: Here’s the Sphere in numbers:
- The structure is 366 feet tall and 516 feet wide—and can accommodate an audience of 18,000 people.
- It contains 1.2 million LEDs—“each about the size of a hockey puck.” That’s 700,000 square feet of video screens.
- The screen extends up to a height of 250 feet—and wraps all the way around—to give you an experience that is “fully immersive.”
- The price tag: $2.3 billion.
A new kind of sound: The visual effect is obviously amazing. But the arena’s true achievement is its sound system. Dome-shaped spaces make for terrible acoustics—and that was a serious challenge at the very outset: “They all said, ‘No, no. You can’t do audio like this in a big bowl. That’s the worst possible environment for it. It’ll be a cacophony, just a trash heap of sound.’” So the company invested in a German startup developing a new technology:
The patented technology they created allows them to beam waves of sound wherever they want within the venue in stunningly precise fashion. This would allow, for example, one section of an audience to hear a movie in Spanish, and another side to hear it in English, without any bleed-through whatsoever, almost like fans are wearing headphones. “It can also isolate instruments,” says [CEO MSG Ventures David] Dibble. “You can have acoustics in one area, and percussion in another.”
A new kind of VR: The Sphere’s elevator pitch from the very outset was “VR without the goggles”:
The idea of experiencing virtual reality without cumbersome headgear, which also hinders the communal aspect of attending an event with other people, is what really got the Sphere rolling. “We thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be great to have VR experiences without those damn goggles?’ That’s what the Sphere is,” says Dibble.
That means vibrating seats and scent, temperature and wind technology—all delivered by underground pipes—that “deliver blasts of air that can approximate wind, steam, raindrops or various smells, such as roses, forests or chocolate chip cookies.”
Amusing backstory: Owner James Dolan was inspired by Ray Bradbury’s short story ‘The Veldt’ where a new kind of tech allows children to project anything they imagine on the walls of their nursery. As with most Bradbury fiction, this does not end well. In the end, the kids conjure up lions—who eat their parents. Irony alert: it is a cautionary tale about the dangers of technology lol!
Befitting such creepy connotations, The Sphere freaked out Las Vegas residents with this giant eyeball:
The jaw-dropping U2 concert
Despite the crazy visuals on the outside, many were sceptical if The Sphere could match the outsized expectations created by the PR machine. On Saturday, they managed to do just that.
About the concert: It was the first performance of U2’s ‘Achtung Baby Live’ tour. It’s basically a live performance of their 1991 album—which happily includes many all-time hits such as ‘Desire’, ‘Where the Streets Have No Name’, ‘All I Want Is You’ etc. The band has signed up for a Las Vegas residency—which means they will put on 25 shows over the next three months.
The visuals: People paid anywhere from $267 to nearly $1500 per ticket to watch this:
This gives you a taste of the performance:
As for those stuck on the outside, The Sphere also unveiled the Space Baby—which offers stiff competition to that creepy eyeball:
Indeed, it works so well that… you leave feeling confident this is an idea others are going to copy: clearly other rock bands are going to turn up to the Sphere in the future, bearing performances big on dazzling technology. Whether they’ll be as dazzling, or indeed as charming as this, time will show.
Next stop, London? Dolan plans to build the next Sphere in East London—which will include “a 21,500-capacity concert hall the width of the London Eye and the height of Big Ben, a nightclub, shops and restaurants.” But unlike Las Vegas, this one will be built in a residential area—and its neighbours are not in the least bit happy.
Gamechanger or insanely expensive fad?
A big thumbs up: The jaw-dropping U2 concert delivered a huge boost—silencing many of the naysayers. Sphere Entertainment’s stock immediately soared by 11%. And its market cap is about $1.4 billion. Wall Street analysts were impressed:
Ease of production aside, we feel management achieved its goal of setting a new standard in the live category — premium, totally immersive, blurring the lines between digital and physical planes in ways unknown to us to exist otherwise… We think it could be the 'live' disruptor — more intimate, impressive, premium, and purpose-built than stadiums and arenas.
The cost overruns on the Sphere are already more than a billion dollars. Earlier this year, New York-based MSG Entertainment, which owns the Sphere, split in two, renaming the venue’s holding company Sphere Entertainment Company in order to insulate MSG Entertainment’s core holdings and protect existing shareholders.
Location, location, location: Other than U2, there have been no other announcements about future acts—though that may change soon. Las Vegas has reinvented itself over recent years—from gambling mecca to the premier destination for sports and big-ticket performances. And that’s a huge boost for The Sphere—which can offer artists the profitability of multiple performances in a massive arena—unlike typical LV residencies with smaller venues. FYI: U2 was paid $10 million and took 90% of ticket sales.
Point to note: Since The Sphere is such a specialised arena, it is unlikely to land one-off shows:
In [Sphere COO Rich] Claffey’s estimation, artists “probably would have to be able to do six to eight shows to be viable, just to make it worth their while and our while… With the technology that exists within Sphere, it doesn’t make sense to come into Sphere if you’re not going to use the media plane [Sphere’s term for its LED screen] and let it do all the things that it can do,” she says. “Otherwise, you would just do your show in an arena.”
The grand plan: extends way beyond music concerts. The Sphere aims to be a “365-day venue” that offers a unique “fusion of science and art”:
To that end, the venue has conceived something called The Sphere Experience, which starts the moment patrons enter the venue. Outside of the bowl-shaped theatre, one of five identical, humanoid robots named Aura greets visitors and interacts with them about the venue’s technology. Activations in the atrium “tell the role of technology in humankind,” according to Dibble; he’s particularly excited about mathematical equations printed across the space with QR codes that, when scanned, explain how the formulas were applied in engineering Sphere.
Of course, that giant exosphere also offers an extraordinary billboard for any brand. The Sphere most recently featured Youtube ads—spotlighting its NFL programming:
And this teaser for ‘Trolls Band Together’:
The big ‘But’: The greatest challenge for The Sphere will be pricing. The Darren Aronofsky film tickets start at $49! Ads on the exosphere will cost an eyewatering $650,000 a week—which is way higher than anything else in the market. And the fact remains that there is plenty of other stuff to do in Vegas—without going broke.
The bottomline: To some in Las Vegas, The Sphere is destined for greatness: “The Sphere will define Vegas architecture... It’s on par with the Sydney Opera House or the Eiffel Tower for becoming a unique city icon.” Others are less confident:
How long will Sphere hold our imagination? That’s impossible to tell. “Will this outlive other things?” asks Matt Victory, a Las Vegas musician I met on the Strip. “Or will they tear it down in five years?” Neither outcome, it seems, would surprise him.
CNN and Hollywood Reporter have the best overview of The Sphere—and its features. Billboard and LA Times have the best deep dive into The Sphere’s viability. New York Times places it in the context of the transformation of Vegas. Bloomberg News is best on the financial big picture.