16 mins read

A night at the Vegas Sphere: it’s pixels all the way down

The Sphere is the main character in Las Vegas right now. If you’re flying into the city from the right angle, half the plane sees it out the window and feels obligated to tell the other half what they’re witnessing. The woman on the flight next to me, who said she’d been to Vegas precisely 52 times, told the first-timer sitting in the window seat that the main thing he had to do this week was get into the Sphere. No problem, he said. He had U2 tickets. 

I, in the aisle seat, silently cursed him. I did not have U2 tickets. The night I was in Vegas, the available seats were $1,495 on Ticketmaster — and even those were gone by the time I checked again. The price was high but not surprising: you’re paying a Vegas premium, a Bono premium, and largest of all, a Sphere premium. 

Here are the salient specs of the Sphere, which opened this fall after five years and upward of $2 billion in construction. The building is 366 feet tall and 516 feet wide. The entire outside — which isn’t a sphere, if we’re going to get technical about it, it’s more like you chopped off the bottom of a cantaloupe to keep it from rolling off your counter — is a single display 580,000 square feet in size. The theater inside has 17,600 seats, 10,000 of which are wired to rumble and shake like a 4D Disney World ride. Another 2,400 people can stand around the stage in the bottom well of the arena, and currently, all 20,000 of those vacancies are filled a few nights a week by rabid U2 fans. 

It’s cool, futuristic, dystopian. I had to touch it.

I was in Vegas for other reasons, but I knew I couldn’t leave without somehow getting inside the Sphere. It is advertised as the biggest, highest-res, perhaps best screen on earth, a screen so big and so high-res, you don’t even notice it’s a screen. It is supposedly the future of entertainment, immersive and exciting enough to get you out of your house and your head out of your phone. The Sphere is an icon in the night sky, an ode to capitalism and our obsession with screens, a bunch of lights on a dome. It’s cool, futuristic, dystopian. I had to touch it.

U2 wasn’t happening. But MSG Entertainment — the conglomerate that owns and operates Radio City Music Hall, Madison Square Garden, and others, and is run by James Dolan, who also owns New York’s Knicks and Rangers — had offered to comp me a $99 ticket to “The Sphere Experience,” which gets you an hour of time inside the Sphere’s lobby and a viewing of Postcard from Earth, a 50-minute tone poem slash tech demo created by the director Darren Aronofsky. The irony of sitting in one of the world’s most expensive movie theaters to learn about the natural world didn’t bother me. I had to know how the screen worked, whether it worked.

Photo by Tayfun Coskun / Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

From two blocks away, the outside screen begins to reveal its secrets. As it peered over a parking lot and a bunch of construction materials, the Sphere looked like a single sparkling television. It was playing a swirling, colorful ad for the Sphere, which seemed redundant; everything the Sphere does, just by turning the electricity on, advertises the Sphere. From one block away, the orb started to shimmer a bit — I could see the pixels and that slight haze you get from a not-quite-sharp-enough display.

From a few feet away, it’s not even a screen anymore. It’s more like a pointillist painting. The exterior of the Sphere is made up of lots of tiny round collections of LED “pucks.” Every puck has 48 tiny LED dots (I counted), and the building’s owner, MSG Group, says each dot can display 256 million colors (I didn’t count that). 1.4 million of those pucks (also didn’t count) cover the whole Sphere. Up close, the effect is roughly what you’d expect if you hung 57.6 million tiny Christmas lights around your large spherical house. It’s a lot of lights.

The closest I got to the Sphere’s LEDs was about three feet. A combination of a metal barrier and a confused security guard, who didn’t seem sympathetic to my particular thirst for LED contact, kept me from getting any closer. So I scanned my ticket, went into the glowing blue atrium filled with holograms and talking robots and other things designed to make you feel vaguely good about the future of technology, purchased a $19 beer so I could test the automatic checkout scanners — for journalism! — and took my seat in Section 207, Row 8.

The screen inside the theater is 160,000 square feet, and MGM Group proudly says it is 16,000 pixels by 16,000 pixels — the highest resolution in the world. This is apparently true and also entirely meaningless. At that size and resolution, the Sphere’s screen is about 1,600 pixels per square foot. The 50-inch Samsung HG50NE477SF Hospitality TV in my hotel room, by contrast, has a resolution of 1,920 by 1,080 pixels and measures roughly 7.405 square feet, which adds up to 280,027 pixels per square foot. If we’re just measuring pixel density, sitting really close to my HG50NE477SF resoundingly defeats trekking two miles and dropping a Benjamin to gaze upon the Sphere.

From my seat in 207, roughly in the center of the theater, I received no clues about the makeup of the enormous screen in front of, above, next to, and even slightly behind me. But since The Sphere Experience only sells a portion of the seats in the theater for each show, Section 211, over by the wall, was wide open. Section 211 is so far to the side that it’d be like trying to watch a movie from the theater’s bathroom, but it has one thing going for it: the screen is just right there.

I looked closely at the screen. I touched the screen. Though I’m not even sure “screen” is the right word. The Sphere’s screen is more like a chain mail of light bulbs. It’s a pixel mesh. It’s a rigid, thin, see-through structure of endless rows of tiny LED dots. This design leaves the display thin enough to allow the Sphere’s 1,600 speaker panels to blast spatial audio through the screen without any visible speakers in the auditorium. It’s also a flexible enough structure to wrap up the ceiling and around the walls. It’s a screen deconstructed, reduced only to the parts that matter: the pixels.

If you’re looking for the pixels, you’ll see them. I definitely saw them.

If you’re looking for the pixels, you’ll see them. I definitely saw them. There was a dead one down toward the bottom left side of the Sphere — I saw that one for sure. But a few minutes into Postcard from Earth, back in my centrally placed seat in 207, I stopped paying attention. The pixel density pretty quickly gives way to the vibes.

The movie starts in the same theater-sized rectangular display that was swirling with color before the show started, and it stays there long enough that the group of four 20-something dudes behind me started to wonder if this was all there was to the Sphere. But after some melodramatic introductions to the idea of Earth, in case you’ve never heard of the planet, the real show begins. The camera zooms into the pale blue dot, and the screen expands. And expands. And expands. A minute later, when we were suddenly surrounded by and hurtling through snowy mountains, the dudes abided, sipping their drinks and loudly crinkling some snacks I couldn’t identify but couldn’t stop hearing. “Whoa,” one of them said. “Okay, this is sick.”

He’s not wrong; the Sphere is a sick place to see a movie. You don’t so much as watch something in the Sphere as you temporarily move into its universe. It makes anything, even this knockoff Planet Earth episode, feel grand and visceral. For the rest of Postcard from Earth, we, the audience, were subjected to a series of gorgeous vignettes accompanied by melodramatic narration that is — spoiler alert! — very concerned about climate change. A spider jumped toward the screen, and literally thousands of people screamed and jumped. An enormous elephant padded by, hundreds of feet tall, and our chairs rumbled with every footprint. When we flew through the mountains, a wind blew in our faces. When the camera tipped over a cliff’s edge down into a canyon, one of the dudes grabbed onto his armrests and said to his friend, “Yo, this is like a roller coaster!”

If you’ve ever been to a planetarium or on the Soarin’ ride at Epcot, you have an idea of what it’s like to be in the Sphere, with video so big and so encompassing that it feels like you’re moving with the camera. The Sphere is that, only much more so, which comes with some tricky new considerations. Aronofsky shot the film on a custom 18K camera developed specifically for the Sphere’s dimensions and told The Hollywood Reporter that one of the hardest parts of the process, other than managing the half-petabyte of footage they shot, was “how to make audiences feel comfortable with their peripheral vision filled with imagery.” The Sphere has rooms just outside the theater for anyone whose senses are overwhelmed by the experience, and I wasn’t the only person who looked down at my lap during one especially flashing-lights-filled part of Postcard from Earth.

But the Sphere is not meant to be comfortable. It is meant to blow your mind. That is the whole reason it exists, its whole competitive advantage over not just other concert venues and movie theaters but its true adversary: your smartphone. Personally, I’ve developed a nasty habit the last few years of putting on a movie “I really want to see” and then looking at my phone through the whole thing. At least for one night, Postcard from Earth cured me of that impulse. 

By the end of the film’s runtime, I’d developed a theory of the Sphere. A Sphere theory. A Spheory. Here it is: the Sphere is the opposite of TikTok. We live in a time filled with scrolling, in which so much of our lives is about the activity of swiping up and down and left and right, moving between things, constantly remixing and interacting and sharing. Hardly anything in modern entertainment just happens to us anymore; we demand to always be involved. But the Sphere happens to you, and it happens in such a huge, multisensory, occasionally discombobulating way that it demands your full attention. 

The experience may be different at a concert, which is, by design, more participatory. You sing, you dance, you take videos you’ll never watch again. U2 fans have certainly posted enough videos to make it clear that the Sphere’s screen is, in addition to everything else, eminently shareable. But when it wants to, it can be immersive unlike anything else I’ve ever seen. Marco Brambilla, an artist who has worked with immersive technology for years and designed part of U2’s concert experience, tells me that the most exciting thing about the Sphere was having this kind of fully embracing experience with no headset required. 

At the same time, though, it is inescapably true that while I was in Las Vegas — a city filled with epic architecture and packed full of people from all over the world, a few hours away from the Grand Canyon, down the road from the Hoover Dam and the Red Rock Canyon and so many other gorgeous natural sights — the only thing that got me looking up from my phone was 160,000 feet of lights and some fake wind. One of the things you hear people talk about in the U2 concerts is a moment where the Sphere’s picture changes, and it shows… the Vegas skyline from the exact perspective of the Sphere. A video of the Vegas skyline. “It’s like the screen went away!” people say, staring at the screen. Think about it too long, and it all gets pretty bleak.

But whatever, it’s 2023. Screens rule everything around me. That’s what I came to understand about the Sphere: it’s not the ideal solution to all our antisocial screen-based lifestyle woes, but it’s probably the most effective one. The Sphere posits that the only cure to Too Much Screen is Way More Screen. In the war between the real world and the shining lights, the lights already won. The only way to sell tickets is to promise more and better lights.

The Sphere is not the ideal solution to all our antisocial screen-based lifestyle woes, but it’s probably the most effective one

Right now, the Sphere is a building, but pretty soon, the Sphere might be a new genre of entertainment. MSG is pushing to build a Sphere in London, though it has been met with backlash from locals who would rather not have a giant glowing ball right outside their windows day and night. (MSG promised blackout curtains for nearby Vegas residents, but those folks are also likely a bit more used to light pollution than your average Londoner.) There’s already a smaller Sphere in Burbank, California, which is the home of Sphere Studios and technical development for the huge domes. Dolan, the big boss and the original artist behind the “circle with a stick person inside” sketch that eventually became the Sphere, has said he wants Spheres all over the world.

With great Sphere comes great challenges, though. A typical movie would look, sound, and feel awful on that large wraparound screen, and I wouldn’t pay $100 to come back, sit with my $19 beer, and watch Wonka on a tiny rectangular portion of the screen. U2 spent months working with Brambilla and many other artists to properly visualize its concert. The Sphere is a new kind of venue that needs an entirely new kind of entertainment, and that’s even harder to create than a giant wall of pixels. 

But I’d go again. For 50 consecutive minutes, the Sphere consumed my universe. I didn’t touch my phone once, and I even forgot all about my $19 beer. It was just me, the dudes, a few thousand of our friends, 1,600 speakers, and 25.6 million lights. It was all we could do to keep up. In a world consumed by documenting, participating, posting, streaming, and sharing, there simply is no second screen Sphere experience. There is no second screen. There is only the Sphere.

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