All Of The (Fully Programmable) Lights: How The Sphere Is Lighting Up The Strip

GLITTER GULCH: The Sphere exterior features a 580,000 square foot fully programmable LED exterior with 1.2 million LED Pucks. It was fully illuminated on July 4. (Photo courtesy of Sphere Ent.)

Sometimes what happens in Vegas doesn’t stay in Vegas – even at 4:30 a.m. on a national holiday. But when you’ve invested $2.3 billion into Sphere, the new 17,500-capacity leading-edge venue that opens in late September with “U2: UV Achtung Baby Live,” and you’re on the verge of completely lighting up 580,000 square feet of fully programmable LED exosphere – the largest in the world, you have to take it for a spin – even if that means someone films and posts it on the web before the official illumination.

“We had to, this was the first time we’ve ever turned this building on in this manner,” says Alex Luthwaite, SVP Show Systems for Madison Square Garden Ent. “It’s the first time we’ve ever produced content and had media servers play in this manner. We did all the testing with our 1/40th scale model in our Burbank studio, so we were fairly confident, but when all the press is pointing cameras at it for July 4th, we wanted to be 100% confident. So we did a test very early in the morning to give us confidence, which was about color calibration and things like that. After that, we felt good.”

If Luthwaite and Sphere’s team felt good during the beta test, imagine their jubilation later that day with the exterior fully illuminated. The Las Vegas skyline was transformed with the giant glowing orb and its powerful succinct HAL-9000-like message: “Hello World.” The exosphere then morphed through numerous colors and modes from tie-dye, moonscape and cascading stars that made the Sphere appear to spin to fireworks, Ol’ Glory and more. It was transfixing and its execution, by all accounts and captured on a dazzling YouTube video, looked flawless and perhaps appeared easy to execute.

It wasn’t in any way.

“We’ve been working towards this for a number of years with a lot of partners and technologies,” says Luthwaite, who mentions SACO Technologies and 7thSense. Luthwaite, who formerly worked on the London Olympics ceremonies, says he had his “finger in multiple pies,” adding, “I was like the glue in the middle of all the different teams. I wasn’t involved with architecture or the physical construction, but I was very involved with the LED manufacturing because I have a lot of experience doing that. I had to make sure everybody was communicating with everyone else and helped see the process through, but ultimately there were different heads responsible for each piece.”

Those different teams and workflows included parametric modeling, architectural design, steel fabricators, LED manufacturing, construction (including bolting the LEDs to the frames and lifting the frames into place, “you have to be extremely accurate, otherwise the image doesn’t work,”) media servers, electricians, content creators and artists and more. All of which means it took a cast of thousands to light up Sphere’s exterior.

The teams had to account for the ability to service and access the vast amount of individual parts. “An enormous amount of thought went into the process of making this very fast, very efficient and very modular,” he says. “Most of it got built on the ground in very large sections. There’s basically parallelogram spirals that roll around the building which is part of the architecture. The (1.2 million) LED pucks fit into that architectural framing and they’re enormous. They were built and assembled on the ground with giant frames, which was more achievable than dangling 300 feet in the air. Then they were lifted with cranes. It was a choreography to design, manufacture and assemble with different partners at each stage. it was a monumental effort.”

Illuminating the exosphere, Luthwaite says, is not the same as illuminating the interior. “The outside is easy in comparison,” he says. One is spherical and outdoors and the other concave, indoors and part of a performance. “There’s 250% more resolution on the inside than the outside,” he said. “The exterior is a sub 4K image, the interior is a 16K x 16K image, so it’s considerably higher resolution. To explain in a different way, the exosphere runs on one very powerful media server, the interior uses 25.”

With less than three months before U2 graces Sphere’s stage, Luthwaite is confident they’ll be ready. “I feel good about it,” he says. “I was there last week, we did some internal testing and it’s all mostly working. We still have to put together some control elements to make it go from an okay show to a really wow show. We’re getting there.”