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Is This $2 Billion Orb the Future of Live Music?

Ever since the Beatles first crossed the Atlantic, in 1964, major concerts have largely taken place at venues built for sports, even though that often means poor sight lines for many fans, and less-than-optimal sound for most everybody. But a new era of live entertainment begins in late September, when U2 christen the “Sphere” in Las Vegas. The 366-foot-tall, 516-foot-wide geometric shape near the Venetian hotel completely reinvents every aspect of the rock-concert experience from the ground up, and is the culmination of seven years of work, with a budget that reportedly swelled beyond $2 billion.

“This will be a quantum leap forward in the sense of what a concert can be,” says U2 guitarist the Edge. “It gives you the opportunity to bring people back in time, and to worlds that are completely computer-generated, but completely believable. It’s a new genre of immersive experience, and a new art form.”

The roots of the Sphere go back to 2015, when the French telecom company Altice bought Cablevision, leaving CEO James Dolan eager to take on a new challenge. He was already the head of Madison Square Garden Entertainment, meaning he understood the limitations of traditional concert venues better than just about anyone. “One night after the sale of the cable company, I said to him, ‘What do you want to do next?’” MSG Ventures CEO David Dibble recalls. “He said, ‘Let’s reinvent live entertainment.’”

Without giving any thought to what was technologically feasible, Dolan drew a sketch of an enormous geometric structure, essentially a spherical IMAX theater on steroids. Its central purpose would be to house arena-size concerts, but it could also be used for movie screenings and other events. “We had literally no idea how we were going to do it,” says Dibble. “We had no staff. It was just Jim Dolan and me.”

As Dolan and Dibble began looking for investors, and seeking out high-tech audio and video companies they could partner with to make it a reality, Big Tech became infatuated with the possibilities of virtual reality. Mark Zuckerberg even changed the Facebook company name to Meta since he was so convinced users were eager to strap on VR goggles and enter the metaverse.

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.

“VR without the goggles” essentially became the elevator pitch, though they faced a lot of naysayers in the early days, especially in the world of audio. “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 caco-phony, just a trash heap of sound,’” says Dibble. “We went, ‘OK, thank you for your input. We appreciate that.’”

They got a different reaction when they traveled to Berlin and met the people at Holoplot. Their tiny startup was contracted by the German government to project sound around the Deutsche Bahn regional rail stations, and it did this by utilizing the principles of wave-field synthesis. It was remarkably effective. “We said to them, ‘All right. You don’t have anything that’s concert-grade right now,’” says Dibble. “‘But how about we take out an equity investment in you, help you carry your technology forward in a partnership, and start to come up with a concert-grade audio system?’ Long story short, we did it.”

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 Dibble. “You can have acoustics in one area, and percussion in another.”

The 16K-by-16K-resolution screen that fills up the ceiling and walls of the Sphere is equally impressive, and required designers to create an entirely new kind of camera to capture images. According to reports, Darren Aronofsky is at work on the first Sphere-only film. “We’re working with a very well-known Hollywood name right now for our first attraction” is all that Dibble is willing to say at the moment. “All that footage we’ve seen that comes back from the field, straight off the camera into the dome is, dare I say it, breathtaking.”

The venue can seat 17,600 fans, and 10,000 of them will be in specially designed chairs with built-in haptics and variable amplitudes: Each seat is essentially a low-frequency speaker. There’s also the option to shoot cold air, hot air, wind, and even aromas into the faces of fans. “There’s a noise-dampening system that we used in the nozzles of our air-delivery system that NASA found really interesting,” Dibble claims. “They were like, ‘Do you mind if we adapted that for the space program?’ We went, ‘No, knock yourself out.’”

Construction began in 2018, just as Dolan and Dibble began imagining using the Sphere for video-game tournaments, corporate events, conferences, and movie premieres. But booking a major rock band to open the venue became a major priority. U2 quickly came to mind because of their long history of incorporating new technologies into their stage show. 

“This building was designed for immersive cinema,” says the Edge. “When it comes to rock & roll bands that use imagery as an integral part of their show, I think U2 is what most people think of first. We became very excited about all the possibilities.”

The U2 show is still in its early days of production, but they know they’re going to play their 1991 masterpiece, Achtung Baby, straight through, in addition to other songs from their catalog. “Unfortunately, because of the amount of time and expense in creating some of these set pieces visually, it’s quite hard to be as quick on our feet and spontaneous as we might have been on other tours,” says the Edge. “But we still are determined that there will be sections of the show that will be open to spontaneity, and it will vary from night to night.”

U2 have committed to 25 shows between Sept. 29 and Dec. 16. There’s a chance they will add a handful more, but the Edge says the schedule is unlikely to bleed into 2024. At that point, a new headliner will take over. No names have been announced yet, and a report in the New York Post says the venue is having trouble finding one. “Many acts are balking at the idea of producing splashy visual spectacles that might overpower their music, a source close to the situation said,” the Post reported. “‘They’ve spoken to a lot of acts who are not interested,’ the source told the Post.”

Dibble claims this isn’t true and disputes the notion that bands will be burdened with the task of creating visuals for the show. “We work very, very closely with the artist’s community,” he says. “We say, ‘All right, this can be simple or it can be super elaborate. Let’s talk about your vision.’ We won’t need a 25-truck load-in. They can just hand us one terabyte thumb drive with their content on it.”

There are also reports that the final construction budget of $2.2 billion was way more than initial estimates, and that the Sphere will struggle to make it back. “To people that think that,” Dibble says, “I’d say, ‘I think you’re gonna be dead wrong.’”


Dibble’s argument is bolstered by the fact that nearly all of the U2 shows have sold out (scattered seats remain for the December dates), and they’re already looking at building additional Spheres in London and other cities around the world. “They will be of varying sizes,” he says. “Vegas can accommodate a big one, but maybe other markets can’t support one that size. And all of our content is transferable. We don’t want people to think, ‘Oh, I have to start over if I’m playing this Sphere location since it’s another-size venue.’ No. What works in Vegas will work anywhere.”

For now, the focus is making the U2 shows as spectacular as possible. “We’re finding ways to use the technology that maybe the MSG people hadn’t even considered,” the Edge says. “Because the screen is so high-res and so immersive, we can actually change your perception of the shape of the venue. There’s all kinds of crazy stuff.”

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