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Las Vegas Sphere raises the bar for immersive entertainment–and why park fans should care
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You may have seen the Sphere when it made news over the Fourth of July by activating its 580,000-square-foot LED exterior–the largest LED screen on Earth–with the proclamation, “hello world.” Located adjacent to The Venetian Resort in Las Vegas, the brash display dazzled the Strip.
In a city known for an oversized casino that looks like a huge pyramid and other outrageous visual statements, the 516-foot-wide, 366-foot-tall Sphere–the world’s largest spherical structure–manages to stand out. For all of its outward allure (and it is spectacular) however, it is what will be happening inside the dome that should truly make the world take notice. Park fans like you will want to especially take heed.
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You may have also heard that a certain little Irish quartet, U2, will be performing a series of concerts in residency there starting September 29 when Sphere debuts. But it is more than a performance hall.
What you may not know is that the one-of-a-kind venue will also be hosting “Sphere Experiences,” grand-scale, immersive presentations that will borrow heavily from the theme park and attractions genre. Starting on October 6, Postcard from Earth, which will incorporate media from noted filmmaker Darren Aronofsky (but be so much more than a movie), will be offered. When I say “grand-scale,” get a load of the following stats.
Yes, the LED screen on the exterior of the structure, what the Sphere folks call the “exosphere,” is gargantuan. But inside the dome, or the “main venue bowl” in Sphere-speak, will be a massive wraparound screen that, at 16K X 16K, will be the highest resolution LED display ever produced. Think of the largest IMAX screen you’ve ever experienced, but wrapped into a dome and expanded to insane proportions.
With 17,600 seats, it has to be insanely large to accommodate the audience. That is the capacity for concerts and other live events (which might include boxing, MMA, pro wrestling (!!), and Esports according to Sphere). But I believe that the audience for presentations such as Postcard will be a mere 10,000, since those are the number of seats that will be outfitted with immersive sensory technology such as haptics, temperature-changing controls, wind, and synchronized smells.
“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 says. “The Sphere is an attempt to dial up that immersion.”
There have certainly been plenty of “4D” attractions at theme parks and elsewhere. Think Disney’s Muppet*Vision or DreamWorks Theatre Featuring Kung Fu Panda at Universal Studios Hollywood. But nothing comes even close to the scale of the Vegas venue. Also, Sphere says that Postcard and other experiences will be about 60 minutes in length, which is far longer than a typical park attraction. The prospect of communing with 10,000 other folks enveloped by startlingly lifelike media for an hourlong journey to far-flung places both real and imagined sounds beguiling. “Immersion” is an overused cliche in the attractions world, but Sphere may deliver on the promise of the concept and take it to unimagined levels.
“We are redefining the future of entertainment through Sphere,” says James Dolan, the company’s CEO. “Sphere provides a new medium for directors, artists, and brands to create experiences that cannot be seen or told anywhere else.”
In order to create content on such a massive scale, Sphere developed proprietary technology, including an ultra-high resolution camera system it dubs Big Sky. It boasts the largest sensor ever produced. Attractions that feature large-format media typically require rigs with multiple cameras to capture the content. This can lead to challenges in the editing process when the images are “stitched” together. Aronofsky and his crew used a single Big Sky camera for the Postcard shoot.
The venue’s audio system, known as “Sphere Immersive Sound,” also incorporates proprietary technology. Using something known as 3D beam forming and wave field synthesis, which will be powered by software algorithms that will be capable of making adjustments on the fly, its developers claim they will be able to deliver deliver high-resolution, concert-grade audio to every seat. Moreover, the system will be capable of targeting personalized content, such as different languages or custom sound effects, to individual guests–no headphones required.
I experienced extraordinary audio (as well as an extraordinary show) when I saw Cirque du Soleil’s The Beatles Love at The Mirage, just down the Strip from Sphere. That tricked-out theater includes speakers embedded in the seats. Apparently, Sphere’s 1,600 speakers will be hidden behind the LED screen and will be capable of mimicking a snippet of conversation whispered into an audience member’s ear as well as fist-pumping, U2-worthy, audio.
All of this scale, spectacle, and bleeding edge technology comes at a price. Tickets for Postcard range from $49 to a lofty $199 for prime seating. (If you think those prices are high, consider that the venue’s U2 tickets went for as much as a cool $950; although, the now-sold-out shows started at $140.)
Speaking of innovation coming at a price, Sphere was originally budgeted to cost $1.2 billion to build, which is fairly eye-popping. But due to supply chain disruptions and other challenges largely thanks to the pandemic, the construction costs for the delayed project ballooned to–wait for it–$2.3 billion. Yowsa.
Some of the finest attractions, such as Wings Over Washington in Seattle and SkyFly: Soar America in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, can now be found beyond the confines of theme parks. You don’t necessarily need to plunk down huge bucks and spend an entire day hanging with costumed characters or scarfing down churros to experience the kind of transportive entertainment we all crave. It would seem that Sphere, with presentations such as Postcard, has the potential to be the most outlandish, and perhaps the best standalone attraction ever devised.
Have you experienced any great standalone attractions outside theme parks? Would you travel to Vegas to check out Sphere?