Year In Tech: Sphere’s Debut Dominates Tech Talk

FIRST LIGHT: Sphere on the opening night of “U2:UV Achtung Baby Live” in Las Vegas on Sept. 29. Photo by Ronda Churchill / AFP / Getty Images

One by one, the members of KISS left the stage at Madison Square Garden as they played “God Gave Rock ‘N’ Roll to You II” one final time at the last show of their (latest) farewell tour.

And one by one, they were replaced on stage by digital avatars created in a partnership with Swedish company Pophouse Entertainment and George Lucas’ Industrial Light & Magic.

This shouldn’t be terribly surprising. For one thing, KISS has never been shy about unashamedly monetizing their famous painted-up visages, plastering themselves on everything from action figures to caskets.

Less crass and, maybe, more correct, was Paul Stanley’s assertion: “The band deserves to live on because the band is bigger than we are.” 

That opens a host of existential and metaphysical questions perhaps best tackled at a philosophy roundtable. Does KISS exist beyond Paul and Gene and the rest? And weren’t Starchild and Space Ace and The Demon and The Catman really the members of the band, not Stanley and Frehley and Simmons and Criss? Isn’t that why KISS remained a going concern despite breakups and de-make-ups and the rest? And aren’t we thinking too hard about KISS?

Beyond KISS, though, this is just a natural progression. ABBA performs as holograms nightly in London, despite the fact that the actual Agnetha, Björn, Benny and Anni-Frid are not particularly fond of one another. Artists perform in the metaverse and as avatars all the time and surely someone somewhere is crunching the numbers: if the demand for live music is at an unforeseen high, couldn’t it be mitigated on the supply side by having, say, a digital Taylor Swift performing at 150 concerts simultaneously?

The possibilities boggle the mind.

But an actuality boggles the mind, too, and it’s impossible to discuss the state of live tech in 2023 without discussing Sphere and U2’s groundbreaking run of 40 shows at the new Las Vegas venue (see page 68).

Just how advanced is the building? So advanced that even as it was being built, the team shepherding it at MSG had to come up with solutions to problems they didn’t even know they’d have.

Though one problem was a known challenge and a big one to tackle. Spheres are excellent and efficient uses of space, but they are acoustic nightmares. So MSG sought out Holoplot, a German company utilizing beamforming and directed sound technology to improve sound at, of all things, train platforms.

The Holoplot system doesn’t just fulfill the basic requirement of providing concert-grade sound in a previously acoustically impossible environment, it heralds a new era of sound design.

It’s possible for one section of the audience to hear, say, an English dub of a film, while a neighboring section hears Spanish, all without bleedover. Different parts of a song can be localized in different parts of the auditorium. 

“Frankly, necessity is the mother of invention,” David Dibble, CEO of MSG Ventures, told Pollstar in September. “Right now, we have 60 patents and counting and I have no doubt we’ll bust 100. In some cases, it was finding new uses for existing technology, but in the vast majority of cases, it just didn’t exist.”

Sphere’s interior is a stunning 16K, 160,000 square-foot screen, capable of effects so realistic that audiences gasp and disbelieve their rational brains telling them it’s video, not reality.

If the technology created for and perfected at Sphere follows the arc of basically every other technology ever created by humans, its benefits will accrue to shows far beyond the intersection of Sands and Koval (the wheel didn’t remain with just one cave clan, after all, and even the famously shrewd Edison had to concede that moving pictures would grow beyond his company).

But to truly flourish, the technology still requires people, as Randy Hutson, senior vice president of PRG’s music group, emphasized to Pollstar for our tech special last month, and that means crew development is as important as new artist development.

And maybe that’s the lesson of KISS: KISS can live on indefinitely, but someone will still have to program them.