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U2 at Sphere

Coming full circle

Sphere’s premiere residency featured celestial floor to-ceiling graphics and soaring surround sound, with the venue attracting both international praise and criticism

Words Verity Butler

A venue like no other, Sphere started life as a drawing: a circle with a stick man inside. Over the course of seven years, that drawing gradually, and expensively, transformed into a colossal venue at a towering 366ft, making it the largest spherical building in the world.

Designed by Populous, construction for Sphere commenced in 2019, with the opening initially targeted for 2021. The project couldn’t have started at a worse time, with Covid-19 and its resulting supply-chain crisis causing major disruption and costly delays to its construction and opening date.

At last, $2.1 billion later, Sphere opened its curved doors in September 2023, with Irish rock band U2 beginning a 36-show residency, titled U2:UV Achtung Baby Live at Sphere. This is almost $1 billion more than initially forecasted by MSG at the start of the project. And, among the many technical partners involved was Disguise.

“Many don’t actually know this, but Disguise has worked with U2 since their Vertigo tour back in 2005,” introduces Peter Kirkup, solutions and innovation director at Disguise. “We collaborated with Fuse – the production company that works with U2 on their shows – who installed our servers into the different show venues.”

Back then, it was challenging for the band to envisage how low-resolution content would look on big LED video screens. That’s when Disguise founder Ash Nehru wrote code to help them previsualise that content. This originated Disguise’s flagship Designer software, used on shows together with Disguise servers ever since.

U2’s debut Sphere show quickly went viral. Reels, TikToks and posts circulated the internet demonstrating dazzling footage from inside the 18,000-seat venue, which displayed ethereal clouds of fluttering birds and rolling landscapes. Clearly, this inaugural residency served a purpose: to boast every lavish bell and whistle used to create this landmark experiential venue.

The story behind the screen

Sphere features the world’s largest LED screen, built with 268,435,456 pixels – equating to 72 vast televisions. That makes every minute of content in the show equivalent to an entire hour of streaming television.

Upon the completion of the roof’s steel frame, 6000 cubic yards of concrete were then pumped onto the roof, forming a ten-inch layer in thickness and weighing 10,000 tonnes. With the roof finally completed in 2021, crews then turned their attention to the 730-tonne steel interior frame supporting the LED screens and audio system. A second topping, for the exosphere, took place on 24 May 2022, followed by the installation of the interior and exterior LED screens.

The latter were illuminated for the first time ever on 4 July 2023 during the Independence Day celebrations, and once again went viral. It astonished onlookers, lighting up the sky with a display of dazzling fireworks, patriotic stars-and-stripes animations and a message that simply said: ‘Hello world’.

For U2’s residency, creatives from the content agency Treatment Studio leveraged Disguise’s Designer software to previsualise and refine visual content on their computers using a digital twin of the Sphere stage.

“Both our software and hardware were used to power the content on Sphere’s wraparound interior LED screen,” Kirkup continues, “which lined 15,000 sq m of the dome’s interior.

“Designer helped sequence the visuals into a timeline of beats and bars, before importing audio to lock visuals to the beat. 16K content was then split and distributed across the 23 Disguise GX 3 media servers used for the show.”

It didn’t take long for the team at Disguise to discover that, when it came to a project like Sphere, they needed to enhance their already top-of-the-line media servers. This meant each one was upgraded with a 30TB hard drive.

Aerial view of Sphere venue in Las Vegas at night

Bumps in the road

This project, in all its extravagance and technical prowess, became problematic. Aside from Sphere’s pricey construction, it’s quite unsurprising that installing the world’s largest LED screens wasn’t the easiest of tasks.

“Working with such a large volume of content was a huge challenge,” Kirkup continues. “Especially as it needed to be in sync with the music, in real time. During a live show, we can’t just press play and let the visuals go from there. What if U2 decided to do an extra riff, or bring on a special guest?”

Sphere’s first residents also emphasised how it was built for creativity, so the visuals needed to enable rather than restrict their artistic vision. U2 frontman Bono explained in an interview with Apple Music’s Zane Lowe: “Most music venues are sports venues. They’re not built for music or art. This was built for immersive experiences in cinema and performance. There are no speakers; the entire building is a speaker. So, wherever you are, you have the perfect sound plan.”

This highlights the degree of creative responsibility of those heading up the venue’s visual capabilities.

“We needed to enable creatives to change the content on the fly,” describes Kirkup, “so that it is always blended well with the music of the show. To do this, snappy rhythmic edits and some extra looping segments were developed, and our software helped to swap them in whenever needed.”

Sphere in Las Vegas showing desert landscape

Powerful partnerships

An enormous variety of other technical partners were involved with construction of Sphere, including Saco regarding the installation of two of its signature features. Those were its 160,000 sq ft interior LED display plane and also its 580,000 sq ft exterior, which is called the Exosphere.

“Sphere’s LED displays redefine the meaning of immersive,” asserts David Dibble, CEO of MSG Ventures. “On the interior, never had an LED screen combined this immense scale and field of view with this level of clarity. At the same time, the exterior is a dynamic canvas that has already become a real global landmark.”

7thSense, the company behind the in-house media server and pixel processing systems powering internal and external LED displays, has worked with the MSG team since 2011, when the company’s award-winning technologies were used as part of the Christmas Spectacular Starring the Radio City Rockettes in New York. Since then, 7thSense and MSG have produced several other project installations.

“We trusted the team to work closely with us and push their tech even further to meet the unique demands of Sphere,” continues Dibble. “The result is an experience that takes audiences from just watching content on an LED screen to feeling like they’ve been transported to new places,” he concludes.

“With the opening of Sphere in Las Vegas,” expands 7thSense CTO Richard Brown, “we were excited to introduce our new Performer range including the Actor media server, the Juggler pixel processor as well as Conjurer – our generative media solution.

“Developed over several years with a focus on the evolving landscape of video technology – and considering the new, challenging workflow requirements associated with a project the size of Sphere – these products are intricately designed to leverage SMPTE ST 2110 IP video streaming.

“7thSense’s Juggler pixel processors handle combining playback media with other video sources to create overall compositions that tell larger-than-life immersive stories. The integration of these products into Sphere is a leap forward in our journey of innovation. I am immensely proud of our team and everything we have accomplished to help bring Sphere to life.”

Without a doubt, the completion and launch of Sphere marked an evident milestone in AV for approaching live music and entertainment venues.

However, with the scrapping of a similar venue proposal for London’s Olympic Park, as well as headlines claiming that a key executive for the Las Vegas Sphere had quit, the future seems turbulent for the groundbreaking venue. This is all on top of a meaty $98.4 million loss since opening, which further exacerbates matters.

Nevertheless, for AV pros and businesses alike, Sphere remains emblematic of the seismic shift taking place in the immersive entertainment market right now.


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