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‘Embracing technology’: 1st look inside the Sphere reveals far-out flourishes

Updated September 29, 2023 - 2:34 pm

His words are the only thing understated in the room where they’re delivered.

“There’s a lot to look at here,” notes Jim Dolan, executive chairman and CEO of Sphere Entertainment Co., as he stands in the atrium of the Sphere, a massive, luminous space that glows like a jellyfish’s innards and looms all around you in futuristic excess, answering that age-old question: What does it feel like to be an ant having wandered onto the set of “Tron”?

Dolan’s observation — delivered Thursday afternoon about 30 or so hours before U2 officially opens the place — might border on hyperbole in a different context, but here, it registers more like an underplay, if anything.

Above us: a series of shiny, illuminated obelisks suspended from the ceiling, pulsating with alternating blue, purple and pink hues.

They gleam next to the 50-foot “spinning wall,” which is comprised of 400 fans covered in LED, which dazzles with images of spiraling butterflies and radiant parabolas that make your pupils feel as if they’re doing somersaults.

“It’s a technology that matches the rotational revolutions with the refresh rate of the LED and gives it a kind of hyper-holographic effect that puts this picture in front of the wall,” says Alex Luthwaite, senior vice president of show systems at MSG Entertainment Corp., explaining the science behind the thing, if you can keep up with him. “It’s a new technology that just makes it more interesting than a typical screen.”

Speaking of new technology, there’s plenty to be had here: “Our current patent portfolio related to the Sphere Experience is 60,” notes David Dibble, CEO of MSG Ventures. “We expect to break 100, easily.”

Among those innovations is the Sphere’s camera technology, which is advanced enough to garner the attention of NASA.

“We’ve already had cameras up on the International Space Station — and we’re sending more,” Dolan says. “We actually have talked to them about someday putting one of our cameras on the moon.”

“Hopefully you can bring me on the moon, too,” responds an interactive humanoid robot named Aura who will answer any questions you pose to her and who stands on an illuminated platform before us. “How fun.”

Yes, there are question-answering interactive humanoid robots here.

Five of them.

‘A different kind of venue’

The thing initially looked like a muffin.

The first designs for the venue that would eventually morph into the $2.3 billion testament-to-all-things-high-tech that is the Sphere resembled the aforementioned baked good, according to Dolan.

But then one night seven years ago, while he and Dibble were working late in his office, Dolan demanded Dibble’s pen, sketched a circle with a stick figure in it and there you have it, the Sphere was born.

Their aim was to create a venue that — unlike, say, Dolan’s Madison Square Garden in New York City — could be utilized most every day of the year, not just when sporting events, concerts and other productions were in town.

“In order to be busy throughout the year, we knew we had to have our own content, we had to have our own acts in there,” Dolan says. “What grew out of that was that we needed a different kind of venue: We needed a venue that could be busy 365 days, to have content that would excite people, that would get them coming all the time.”

In other words, the venue would need to be an attraction in and of itself.

And not just the venue as a whole, but every component of it: the inner bowl, where concerts and films will be presented with next-level audio and visual production values; its exoskeleton, outfitted with eye-popping video elements; and even the atrium, which greets visitors upon entrance with scads of innovative flourishes.

“The atrium, as you can probably tell by its scale, is its own activation space,” Dibble notes.

It’s filled with what Dolan calls “experiential media,” which is intended to be a more immersive, personalized medium.

“The atrium itself is designed along the concept of exploring technology and exploring the notion that technology pushes human potential, which is a big theme for us,” he says. “This place is about embracing technology.”

On sound systems and avatar scanners

Everything here seems designed to give a technophobe heart palpitations.

Currently, we’re standing in one of four illuminated circles in the center of the atrium.

Nearby is a wall of speakers from the Sphere Immersive Sound system, which uses audio beam-forming technology to direct sound in specific directions.

Dibble cues up a blues number.

As we walk from one circle to the next, we hear a specific instrument in each spot, separated from the rest of the mix: sax, guitar, piano, organ, all delivered in crystalline clarity and complete isolation.

The ability to direct sound in this manner is a must for a venue shaped like the Sphere, Dibble notes.

“If you took a standard concert-grade audio system and moved it into our performance bowl, it’s akin to a laundry basket of pingpong balls, dump them out onto this hard floor, sound goes everywhere,” he says. “It’s a cacophony. You wouldn’t hear a darn thing. We had to come up with a way to resolve that.”

Next, we approach one of several “avatar scanners,” a pentagon-shaped platform backed by a video screen and ringed with lights.

The way it works: You walk in, receive a 3D polymetric scan, and then the device creates an avatar that’s emailed to you.

“If you want, we’ll even do a 3D printed version,” Dolan says. “I have one of me at home that my girlfriend keeps next to her when I’m not there,” he chuckles.

Near the ceiling in the back of the room, geometric images swirl in a brightly colored display of digital art that constantly morphs into new shapes, like the goop in a lava lamp.

“This is a machine learning artwork,” Luthwaite explains. “We use computers, we input these math formulas into it, and over time and iterations, this is what it comes up with. This is sort of a tip of the hat to the maths we use in the building.”

There’s a math motif throughout the room, with some of the formulas used in the creation of the Sphere lining the walls.

Do the equations all add up?

Who knows.

Better to ask one of those interactive humanoid robots.

Contact Jason Bracelin at jbracelin@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0476. Follow @jbracelin76 on Instagram.

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