The $2 Billion Las Vegas Sphere Explained

That city of bright lights in the deserts of Nevada has never been much of a wallflower. Each year, as the world turns and progress keeps pushing forward the realms of what is possible, Las Vegas debuts brighter and bigger spectacles. This, after all, is where to find a recreation of the pyramid complex in Luxor, Egypt; a replica of the Eiffel Tower; a canal that mimics those found in Venice; a mini-skyline of New York City; and dancing, synchronized fountains that put on a show every day to scores of gawping onlookers. 

And yet, it's hard to believe that this city only came into existence in 1905, on a plot of land a little larger than 100 acres. The first casino on the Strip arrived in 1941, while the city's biggest boom began in the 1980s. Las Vegas received almost 40 million visitors in 2022, an impressive number in a year when tourism was still shrugging off the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. As Las Vegas continues to evolve, it seeks to attract travelers with new, shinier, slicker, more showy objects; a way to keep the city fresh, garner new headlines, and — let's not be naive — lure new paying customers. This would explain the latest addition to the city's wildly eclectic (and some might say gaudy) skyline. Sphere, an orb that will fully debut in September 2023, is, quite frankly, unlike anything the world has ever seen.

What is Sphere?

It might look like a spaceship that decided to land in the desert, but it's not. In a nutshell, it's a new entertainment venue in Las Vegas that happens to have a huge dome screen on its exterior, and that is linked by a walkway to the Venetian Convention & Expo Center. That's the simple answer, but there are many more layers to it. In a city with no shortage of performance venues, this one stands out, which is no small feat given the competition. The company behind Sphere also owns MSG Network, so entertainment is in its DNA. 

Las Vegas has long had a tradition of hosting marquee shows, either as one-offs or long-term residencies. Many come to Vegas not just to gamble, to enjoy the gargantuan breakfast buffets, or to wander around a surreal cityscape, but to catch some of the shows by internationally renowned acts. David Copperfield has regular specials at the MGM Grand Las Vegas, while Criss Angel perplexes viewers with his show at Planet Hollywood. Cirque du Soleil has a number of productions running at any one time, and both Maroon 5 and Katy Perry have had residencies in Sin City during the summer of 2023. While these acts might be unique, the question is whether any of the venues where they perform can really compare to Sphere?

Why is it so special?

For starters, Sphere is shaped like it's named, making it already different from anything else in the city. There are no sharp pointy bits, no soaring structures, and no grand, broad towers. Instead, it appears as a mammoth bowling ball (or the "Star Wars" Death Star) dropped onto land one block away from the Strip — the glitzy, most famous part of Las Vegas Boulevard. Beyond being an arresting sight, it is a marvel of technology and engineering, as anyone who has seen it in person, or on one of the many videos posted online, can appreciate. The exterior alone curves over 580,000 square feet, the equivalent of about 10 American football fields. That makes it the biggest LED screen on the planet, covered by more than one million LED lights that can display in excess of 250 million colors. 

This screen on the outside of Sphere — known as the Exosphere — can be programmed to show anything in incredible clarity, visible for miles around. That's what makes it the ultimate billboard for any event, occasion, organization, or message in the city. Supporting this are ridiculously high-definition screens that wrap around almost the entire interior shell, so vivid and all-encompassing, stretching in every direction that the eye can see, that the images broadcast on them look like real life (some might say even claim that they are better than real life).

What can it do?

It's a phrase that is often bandied about incorrectly, but in this case, the possibilities really are endless. Given its globe-like shape, the Exosphere is perfectly suited to recreating images of objects that are round. It can light up like the moon; an eyeball that is watching the city; a Halloween pumpkin (great for that October celebration); a regulation basketball (a clever way to pitch the idea of an NBA expansion team laying roots in the city, which Las Vegas desperately wants); the planet Earth; artwork; and so much more with mind-blowing definition. 

One recent post on Instagram showed an animation of a magical castle spinning inside an orb, with twinkling fairy dust floating all around it, the entire effect making the castle feel like it was inside a massive snow globe — precisely the type of spectacle of wonder, fantasy, and imagination that would delight any onlooker. And that's just on the outside. The inside has plenty more bells and whistles that will deliver a concert performance, theatrical show, or cinematic experience to a level hereto unknown. But more on that later.

When does it open?

Years in the making, Sphere has been a presence in Las Vegas for some time now, initially as a hole in the ground when it was a construction site, then taking on a loose form, and finally unveiling itself to the public for the very first time on July 4, 2023. The date was, of course, smart marketing and symbolic planning, and the screen began with the simple message of "Hello World" before bursting into a virtual show of fireworks, followed by animations that celebrated Independence Day. 

From here, the shell's surface shuffled through a series of images, from tableaus that depicted life underwater, to the pockmarked surface of the Moon (for some viewers, it might even have appeared that the Moon had somehow shrunk and landed on Earth). Since then, regular updates of what has graced the Exosphere have been uploaded to social media sites, but the interior remains a mystery. This is because the venue officially opens on September 29, 2023, with a concert by the iconic Irish rock band U2.

Is it cool?

Does a bear seek out a wooded area to relieve its intestinal pressure? The answer to whether Sphere is cool or not is pretty obvious, given the range of images that can be programmed to appear on the exterior screen. How can anyone not be bowled over by a giant ball that has the image of a beady eye on it, peering at all corners of the city, a concept that is chilling and thrilling at the same time? Or a recreation of the moon's surface, bringing the idea of outer space closer to home, democratizing the notion that the universe is a beautiful, multi-planetary ecosystem in which we are a living part? Or a hypnotic dance of blue and white colored basketballs swirling about, weaving like precious gems being shunted around by a gentle ocean's current? Or even a blanket of puffy colors, tinged in golds and pinks and purples and appearing like an otherworldly realm?

The beauty of some of these images is not just visual, but also emotional; they are able to totally transport the viewer, if only for a few seconds, to a place of childlike wonderment that transcends everyday life. Need we say more?

What has the reaction been?

By and large, the reaction so far has been positive, with plenty of comments in response to uploaded clips praising the structure's supreme technology and sensational imagery. That, of course, is not surprising, given the dazzling, inventive combinations of color and animation that have regularly exploded on the surface of the Exosphere since July 4. But there have also been detractors to the launch of this phenomenon. For example, some Las Vegas residents are unhappy with the traffic jams that it is causing, as cars slow down to take in the novelty of Sphere. Work to repave sections of the road in preparation for the Formula 1 race in Las Vegas in November hasn't helped the situation. This is likely to lessen once the novelty of this newcomer wears off. 

On top of this, some have pointed to the light pollution created by an object that is most impressive at night. This is a genuine issue, and not just for people staying nearby. A study published in 2021 reveals that light that can be seen from global satellites has risen by a minimum of 49% in the period between 1992 and 2017.

Why should anyone care?

In an era when it's easy to be jaded and where everything claims to be unique or special — where the words custom, bespoke, and tailored seem almost throwaway in their value — Sphere really can stake the claim that it is one-of-a-kind with some authority. For any fan of technology, for anyone who revels at the prospect of live entertainment, Sphere is a huge development by any benchmark, putting it at the very forefront of venues anywhere in the world. It is the biggest sphere on the planet, measuring 516 feet across and rising up to 366 feet. Those dimensions allow for generous room inside, allowing a banked seating capacity of 17,600 fans, or 20,000 patrons when some are standing. 

The internal screen, which will feel like a seamless coating across the entire ceiling, will have 16K x 16K resolution — again, another world-beating achievement. Even the main atrium, the entry to the whole shebang, can host 3,000 people, making it a great spot for an event, convention opener, charity bash, or product launch.

What will a show feel like?

Think of the inner screen as though it were an ultra-high-definition planetarium sky-scape, but larger, clearer, more precise, and more detailed. A show here, in a sense, might be like the ultimate immersive roller-coaster type experience — complete with haptic seats, wind effects, and even scents and temperature variations to amplify the effects — but for live shows and screenings. For instance, for a screening of a nature documentary where the camera swoops down, the seats might vibrate to give the viewer the sensation of moving just as the filmmaker did (10,000 of the seats at the venue are thus designed). Interior ventilation systems might create wind to mimic the sensation of being outdoors or raise the temperature to simulate a warmer environment, adding a layer of realism to the proceedings. 

Furthermore, the wraparound video screen will fully plunge viewers into the world that it displays, adding another facet to the experience. With an audio system that uses beamforming (which places audio output at specific points to make the sounds seem more realistic), guests will hear sound that is more fully rounded, and that doesn't come from specific banks of speakers, but from anywhere and everywhere. With all the effects combined, visitors might very much feel like they are somewhere else, not inside a venue one block from the Strip, enjoying the ultimate immersive escape.

What can people expect to see?

Since the launch event needed to be something special, the owners of Sphere secured U2 to be the opening act. The Irish super band needs no introduction. It's known for rousing, meaningful anthems such as "Pride," with its moving, heartfelt lyrics written about Martin Luther King, Jr. U2 is also known for its impressive longevity — the members first formed in the 1970s and have been playing ever since, having never broken up along the way. Formally called "U2:UV Achtung Baby Live at Sphere," this will be the band's first live show in four years. There will be 25 shows from September 29 to mid-December that will make full use of the venue's enviable technical and physical capabilities. 

In addition, the cinematic potential of the interior screen will also be fully realized with a second production, debuting on October 6, 2023, called "Postcard from Earth." Filmed by acclaimed director Darren Aronofsky, it looks at the natural beauty of the planet, using high-definition footage to carry the viewer far away. As Aronofsky said via the Hollywood Reporter, "At its best, cinema is an immersive medium that transports the audience out of their regular life, whether that's into fantasy and escapism, another place and time, or another person's subjective experience. The Sphere is an attempt to dial up that immersion."

Is it the only one in the world?

For now, Sphere is the only structure of its kind in the world. But that's the thing about a winning formula: It's something that entrepreneurs and titans of industry like to replicate. That's why there are plans afoot to build a similar structure in East London in the neighborhood of Stratford. MSG Sphere London will have a slightly higher capacity than the Las Vegas debutant. However, the plans have raised eyebrows and objections from local residents, politicians, and transportation authorities, with worries about the effects of the lights on residential households, and the arrival of a structure that might be suited to the glitz of Las Vegas, but out of place in East London. 

Back in the United States, Sphere Entertainment has also launched Sphere Studios. Headquartered in Burbank, California, its mission is to explore technology and create content expressly for Sphere to showcase. The facility, spreading over more than 65,000 square feet, will be on par with a full movie studio, with full editing and production capabilities, sound stages, and cameras with super high definition. At 28,000 square feet and 100 feet high, the studio's Big Dome is a smaller-scale version of Sphere that's designed to help teams test their work before rolling it out for the Las Vegas arena. What this means is that the public can anticipate plenty more content down the pipe that will soon make its way on Sphere's giant screen.