April 17, 2024

Grand Depart

Experienced In Technology

Building the Las Vegas Sphere: World’s Largest Spherical Structure

8 min read
Building the Las Vegas Sphere: World’s Largest Spherical Structure

The shiny, new Las Vegas Sphere is more than just a 17,600-seat amphitheater-style venue hosting a U2 residency. The entertainment experience venue now dotting the Strip has already picked up a handful of superlatives, too. Since its opening late last month, it’s become the world’s largest spherical structure at 516 feet wide and 366 feet tall. Meanwhile, the seating bowl’s 160,000-square-foot spherical LED “immersive surface” lights up at full 16K resolution, making it the highest-resolution LED screen on Earth. To add another wrinkle, the world’s largest beamforming audio system—think headphone-style sound without the headphones—tucks behind the immersive surface for a fully customized experience.

And experience is the key. The Sphere’s three world firsts for shape, sight, and sound craft a fresh entertainment experience, one that has taken at least 60 patents to produce (though leaders have filed other patents throughout the course of the project, and expect to surpass the 100-patent mark).

“It is other-worldly,” David Dibble, CEO of MSG Ventures, which is responsible for the building’s technology, tells Popular Mechanics. “It took more than a fair amount of brilliance to build the place.”

A Sphere within a Sphere

Sphere Entertainment Co., a sister company to Madison Square Garden in New York City, wanted to wrap people inside a new experience, Paul Westbury, executive vice president of development and construction at Sphere Entertainment, tells Popular Mechanics.

“A spherical screen is a great way of cocooning people into that photo-realistic environment and sets the precedent for what we are about,” he says. “With a spherical screen you need a spherical building and a spherical experience. We are a sphere.”

The steel structure also features a 400-foot-long clear span roof. Designed by global architecture firm Populous, the building has seven concourse levels, an 80-foot atrium with columns double the height of those at the Pantheon in Rome, and a bowl geometry with seating oriented toward the stage. Four seating tiers and two suite levels are wrapped in the sphere’s immersive surface.

september 27, 2023 sphere interiors shoot

The Sphere atrium

Rich Fury/Image Courtesy Sphere Entertainment

To get true 3D experiences, Dibble says the venue needed depth and sensation. “The Earth is round, so for us to have an immersive, transportive experience for our audiences, you need to mimic the environment that people live in,” he says.

Plus, there’s no need for a sign letting you know what the building is. “You look at it and you know exactly what it is. We want our building shape to be iconic,” Dibble says. “What’s stunning is that the response once you go inside is that it is intimate and that is because it is purpose built.”

The construction was a lesson in tight tolerances. The steel sphere exterior required one of the world’s largest cranes pushed to 90 percent of its capacity to lift the final, 120-ton crown of the sphere over 500 feet. This created a double sphere that is an exterior freestanding structure independent of the inner sphere, blacked out and wrapped by the external display cage. “We’ve got a building inside a building,” Westbury says.

Both required intricate planning to construct with supports during sequencing. “Getting the pieces to fit is not as easy it seems,” Westbury says. The team had to plan installation based on how hot the sun was—heat makes the steel expand—while dealing with building something akin to an igloo. “You build it up layer by layer until you put the cap piece in,” he says. “It is a little bit wobbly as you go up.” The team had to prop the Sphere from the inside to ensure loads stayed in the right place, he says, adding that “it was tricky.”

Seen from Space

The Sphere creates a memorable experience, even for those who never enter. The 580,000 square feet of fully programmable LED exterior offers up a vivid canvas of 256 million colors bright enough to be seen from space.

“Building a big structure is a challenge, but not a unique challenge,” Westbury says. “A 512-foot-diameter giant ball in the middle of the desert with a 400-foot clear-span steel roof to enclose a seating bowl is a challenge, but the tough bit was integrating the technology.”

The 1.2 million LED “pucks” on the exosphere—assembled amidst 400 LED mega panels attached to a steel diagrid—are spaced 9 inches apart for a high-resolution outdoor screen calculated for ideal resolution at 978 feet.

the sphere in las vegas

The Sphere is seen at the Venetian Resort in Las Vegas, Nevada, United States on October 1, 2023.

Getty Images

The entire system is custom-designed and created with SACO of Montreal for the Sphere. Light-emitting diodes certainly existed prior to this project, but the ability to light up the entire building—it has appeared as everything from an eyeball to a basketball—required a new approach to handle the curvature and geometry. “LED sticks just aren’t going to work,” Dibble says.

The result was a “puck” idea, so named because they are roughly the same size as a hockey puck, each made up of 48 diodes. All 1.23 million pucks are backfilled in black silicone for weather sealing and to ensure they remained non-reflective.

Adding millions of LED pucks on the mega panels isn’t enough, though. The team crafted 12 exterior catwalk levels and a system that allows for maintenance workers to repel and trade out pucks—when the system constantly monitoring the exterior alerts the need for a switch—with just one hand thanks to a simple squeeze and turn release and a push, pop, and twist installation. “It actually works one-handed,” Dibble says.

Wrapped in Experience

The exterior surface offers a bath of LED. But inside, the immersive surface wraps up, over, and around the audience with full 16K x 16K resolution.

“If you look at it, it is photo-real,” Bono tells Apple Music. “It is at a level of resolution you will not even detect the shape of the sphere.”

u2uv achtung baby live at sphere

Bono, The Edge, Adam Clayton and Bram van den Berg of U2 perform during U2: UV Achtung Baby Live at Sphere on September 30, 2023 in Las Vegas, Nevada.

Getty Images

All the seats fall under the 160,000-square-foot surface. The display rises from the event floor and curls up and beyond the upper seating tier with an apex of 240 feet. To trick the human eye into this fully immersive experience, the tolerances on the diode placements are wildly tight, just the thickness of a blade of grass.

“When the content starts, you hear people literally gasping,” Dibble says of the surface.

With a display about the size of two full soccer fields, the 189 million diodes needed to center every 9 millimeters. “That is pretty tough,” Westbury says. “Then it gets tougher. The human eye is incredible and picks out any little variance in geometric position. We had 189 million diodes across two soccer pitches, and none can be out of position by more than the thickness of a blade of grass.”

✅ Math Matters

The Sphere is a modern marvel rooted in ancient math. Engineers embraced both centuries-old mathematical formulas and laws and some incredibly contemporary interpretations, offering up an entire exhibit in the building’s Atrium highlighting this math. Here are just a few we love:

This law helped calculate architectural angles across the building, from the pitch of the Atrium escalators to the curve of the archways.

Sphere teamed up with a fabricator to craft printed circuit boards (PCBs) housed in aluminum paneling. They positioned 64,000 PCBs to construct the surface using a newly created robotic installation process to ensure accuracy. “We are designing equipment for the installation phase,” Westbury says of the intricacy. Everything was created new for the Sphere, including the PCBs, the clips, framing, installation process, and maintenance. Even 70 percent of all technology in the building was custom-created for the venue.

To make use of the screen, Sphere Entertainment hired a leader in the camera industry to design, manufacture, and deliver the world’s highest resolution cinematic camera platform.

Westbury admits those intolerable tolerances aren’t fun to construct, but required to “convince people they are transported elsewhere.”

The Sound of Sensation

The Sphere has 164,000 speakers. Visitors don’t see even one. They are all tucked behind the immersive surface, and form the world’s largest beamforming audio system.

The immersive sound uses 3D audio beamforming technology and wave-field synthesis to target audio to the seating bowl, able to send unique audio content—whether different languages, different instruments, or unique sound effects—to varying locations within the venue.

“Wherever you are, you have perfect sound,” the Edge tells Apple Music. “There’s nothing else like it in the world and won’t be for many, many years.”

Dibble says the magic in the audio system is the digital processing that happens in real time behind the scenes. The speakers act like a flashlight beam that can pinpoint light or spread out. “That is exactly what we do with our audio system,” he says.

u2uv achtung baby live at sphere

Getty Images

While the spherical shape is great for a performance bowl, amphitheater seating, and even the video immersion, it is a “nightmare for audio,” Dibble says. “It is physics. We are clever, but we can’t change physics.” He says a traditional audio setup would have been atrocious, so the team partnered with a tiny wavelength audio company in Berlin to fund a concert-grade system.

“None of us had any idea how we could do it,” he says about a system with no audio bleeding. “What we ended up with today is a first generation of a wave-field synthesis system that delivers the best audio system regardless of shape of venue. We wanted to create a creative palette for artists to come in and exploit in ways audiences have never experienced.”

The Sphere also offers a true 4D experience, something far beyond what people think of from an IMAX. Along with the screen resolution and wave-field synthesis audio, the 10,000 haptic seats were specially designed with actuators to tune frequencies, and act as a low-frequency bass if needed. The variable amplitude can time the haptic response to the content so in real time it isn’t just a “gag” of on or off, but provides variable context. In Darren Aronofsky’s Sphere-specific film Postcard from Earth, when a bull elephant starts moving, the ground-based microphones that picked up the pounding of the elephant mixes into the seats; so as the elephant approaches, visitors feel the experience.

Feeling that experience starts in Las Vegas, but Sphere Entertainment plans to deliver more, with spheres at different sizes across a global network. “It is amazing what we can do when we get great teams together,” Westbury says. “We learned a lot in how to deliver something that is truly unique.”

Headshot of Tim Newcomb

Tim Newcomb is a journalist based in the Pacific Northwest. He covers stadiums, sneakers, gear, infrastructure, and more for a variety of publications, including Popular Mechanics. His favorite interviews have included sit-downs with Roger Federer in Switzerland, Kobe Bryant in Los Angeles, and Tinker Hatfield in Portland. 

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