U2 Kicked Off the Era of the Sphere, so What’s Next?
The Sphere has already set new standards for entertainment in Las Vegas. And there’s more to come.
It's September 29, the opening night of the Sphere in Las Vegas. U2 is kicking off what started as a 25-date residency in a venue so bright, it's visible from space, yet Bono can't stop talking about Paul McCartney, who's watching the show in an audience that also includes Jeff Bezos, Katy Perry, and Jon Bon Jovi among the celebrity guests.
"The Sphere may have come into existence … to solve the problem that the Beatles started when they played Shea Stadium," Bono says, referencing the Fab Four's infamous 1965 concert, when the sound system couldn't match the volume of 55,000 screaming New York fans. "Nobody could hear you. You couldn't hear yourselves."
But the Sphere is more than a technology upgrade. If the Beatles wrote the playbook in the 1960s, U2 is bookending the rock era more than five decades later, leading a dramatic evolution in live entertainment inside an imaginative venue with endless possibilities for the future.
The Sphere is an arena nearly seven years in the making, by Sphere Entertainment Co (which was part of Madison Square Garden Entertainment prior to an April 2023 spinoff) on land adjacent to The Venetian. At 516 feet wide and 366 feet tall, it's the largest spherical structure in the world, capturing everyone's attention on July 4, 2023 when its LED-paneled exterior lit up the Sin City skyline with a simple greeting: "Hello World." In the months since, the 580,000-square-foot exosphere has been programmed with a variety of animations, from the Earth itself to a blinking eyeball, featuring an astounding digital palette of 256 million colors.
U2 was the perfect act to unwrap the gift inside: a 160,000-square-foot LED screen, which offers more playing area than three football fields. With crystal-clear 16K resolution, it's more than 300 feet tall, stretching above and behind more than 17,500 seats to create a digital backdrop of environments limited only by the scope of one's imagination.
Fortunately, U2 is one of the great live rock bands of their time with the talent, legacy, and catalog to match the special effects. The band performs on a minimalist stage, inspired by a turntable designed by longtime producer Brian Eno, but never gets overwhelmed by the Sphere's futuristic features. The setlist is based on Achtung Baby, a fitting choice since the classic 1991 album saw the band embrace new technology and unconventional sounds without sacrificing songs and musicianship.
The night begins with a focus on the band, using the effects sparingly. It's not until the second song that the full magnitude of the Sphere is unleashed. U2 is performing "The Fly," surrounded by a wall of rainbow-colored digits that form a funnel and climb to the top of the venue. Suddenly, the design morphs into a rectangle and reverses course, as if the audience is underneath an elevator dropping to the ground floor. That's the moment when everyone gets it. The Sphere's greatest superpower is the illusion of changing shape.
Throughout the evening, the audience is indoors, outdoors, by the water, floating on air, trapped inside a jar of flies, and immersed in a convincing recreation of the Las Vegas Strip, as if the walls of the Sphere melted away. The environments range from charming (a digital balloon with a real-life string during "Tryin' to Throw Your Arms Around the World") to inspirational (a rousing "Where the Streets Have No Name" with the bright daylight of the desert as the backdrop). At times there's a sense of motion. The stage appears to elevate during (appropriately enough) "Even Better Than the Real Thing" and become swallowed by another world during "With or Without You."
You can only get a first impression right once, and while the videos posted on social media are impressive, it's nothing like being there in person. The two-hour show is a communal experience of sound, vision, and emotional resonance.
"The worldwide reaction to U2 has been more than I expected, and I'm of course really happy about it," says Jim Dolan, executive chairman and CEO of Sphere Entertainment. "We see technology just continuing to push human potential."
The one thing you won't see is the hidden Holoplot audio system: 160,000 speakers behind the screen that project sound like a focused laser beam, as opposed to a traditional wave that dissipates with distance, giving consistency and clarity to the guitar of The Edge, bass of Adam Clayton, and drums of Bram van den Berg (filling in for Larry Mullen, Jr., who's recovering from surgery). "The sound is the same from one end of the bowl to the other end," Dolan says. "It's why Bono can whisper to you … which I don't think has ever been done in a rock show before."
The 4D Effect
Exactly one week after U2's opening night, The Sphere Experience debuted with Postcard From Earth, a cinematic presentation by Darren Aronofsky, the Academy Award-nominated director behind films like Black Swan, The Wrestler, and Requiem for a Dream.
The movie runs 50 minutes, mixing computer-generated science-fiction scenes with more than a hundred moments shot on location throughout the Earth's seven continents. Sometimes there's a feeling of motion as if flying in the air or dramatic shifts in direction as the scenes unfold, creating a sense of wonder, while making a point to not overdo it.
"The early demo reels that were pitching [the technology] had a lot of roller coasters and the cliche things you'd expect from immersive technologies, and I just didn't want to do that," Aronofsky tells Thrillist. "I wanted to give people a feeling of awe, but I didn't want it to be a cheap ride."
The Sphere team invented the Big Sky camera system to capture the scope of photography and digital information required to display the images in 16K clarity on such a large viewing screen. The data translates to about 32 gigabytes per second. By comparison, a typical conventional movie might be three or four total gigabytes when downloaded on your hard drive.
"It would take about 12 people to turn it on. That's how hard it was to work with," Aronofsky says about the camera. "It was technically difficult, but very rewarding in the end."
Even the director himself was surprised at how well everything turned out, noting the film has an ability to "fool people into questioning where they are on the planet." This isn't a souped-up version of an IMAX nature presentation. It's a transformative journey, taking the audience around the world–over mountains, across deserts, underwater, and through jungles, while exploring the everyday lives of people in different countries and cultures.
The 4D effects are impressive, but used with welcome restraint to maximize their effect. You'll notice the faint smell of citrus while oranges are collected in an orchard or feel a jolt in your seat and a gust of wind when rockets launch into space. Just like during the U2 concert, the Sphere itself gives the illusion of changing shape, especially noticeable when floating through a European cathedral. Yet the most powerful moment is a dramatic closeup of Earth itself–a shot so crystal clear, it's the closest someone will come to experiencing the outer limits of our planet's orbit without actually being an astronaut.
Postcard From Earth also offers proof of a society out of balance. The Earth is a wonderful place, but we need to take care of it. The final moments of the movie can either be viewed as a pessimistic reflection of modern society or a warning that change is possible before it's too late.
"I've been leaning into telling stories about the future of humanity that are positive. I call it protopian fiction versus dystopian fiction," Aronofsky says. "When I look out into the world, I see people doing amazing things, and it's important to show a future that's exciting."
Guests are invited to spend about an hour browsing a series of exhibits in the Sphere atrium before Postcard From Earth begins. You can interact with AI-powered robots that answer questions, get scanned to generate your own avatar (emailed to you within 24 hours), experience a Holoplot sound demonstration with different instruments heard depending on where you stand, and marvel at the Hypervsn Wall, which displays fully rotational 3D objects. Look around and spot motifs of the same mathematical equations used to construct the Sphere with scannable QR codes to reveal details about them.
"We would love to get school children involved," Dolan says with plans in the works for a program involving the local education system. "We want them to understand that boring subjects like math and science aren't really boring, that there's a practical application for those subjects. And if you come to the Sphere, you'll see how that algebra class actually relates to something like this."
This is only the beginning. New digital content for the next headliner is being generated at Sphere Studios–something of a mini-Sphere in Burbank with a quarter-size version of the Vegas screen–which will be transferred via hardwire to the Sphere.
It took about nine months to get the U2 residency ready. It should now take about two months for each additional artist. So who's next? Phish is officially on the schedule for April while Dead & Company has shows booked between May and July. With Harry Styles noticeably skipping Vegas on his most recent tour, it's stirring chatter of a residency to come. The Weeknd and Lady Gaga have been actively discussed on social media, but seem to be mere speculation at this point. The Sphere teamed up with DreamWorks last year to promote Trolls Band Together, which just happened to feature a new song by a reunited *NSYNC. The boy band would be a perfect fit for the Sphere, but the only follow-up was a new Justin Timberlake solo album. Oh well, there's always next year. Meanwhile UFC President Dana White confirmed the fight company will bring sports to the Sphere for the first time in September.
Meanwhile, U2 added more dates in 2024, turning what started as a 25-date residency into a 40-date residency.
The CEO confirms a second in-house feature will follow Postcard From Earth about a year from now and Darren Aronofsky says he's open to working with the Sphere again in the future, perhaps with a more narrative-driven story.
As amazing as it is, the Sphere isn't perfect. Some seats in the lower 100 section have obstructed views of the screen due to an overhang to accommodate higher levels—a problem the Sphere is hoping to temper with a clear warning to ticket buyers. On-site parking is extremely limited (and self-parking runs $75 for U2), mirroring a trend in which new Vegas attractions rely on nearby casino garages to handle the overflow, prompting both the Venetian and Wynn to introduce paid parking in recent weeks. Neither the sidewalks out front nor the newly built corridor between the Venetian and Sphere are large enough to comfortably handle the crowds of ticket holders, leading to moments of frustration and bottlenecks. Best advice: Don't be late. Come early for dinner and drinks at the casino and check out Zoo Station, a free two-level pop-up museum that chronicles the history of U2 with a focus on the band's Actung Baby era and boundary-pushing "Zoo TV Tour" in the early '90s.
With a widely circulated $2.3 billion price tag, the Sphere is also under pressure to eventually turn a profit. The exosphere has already redefined the Las Vegas skyline, but don't be surprised to see it become the world's most expensive billboard. Dolan says half the time, the LED panels will be dedicated to "art and education" with the rest used for money-generating ventures, including ads and sponsorships.
Warts and all, the Sphere has changed Las Vegas and global entertainment for the better. New versions are planned with the next one expected to take shape in about two years—most likely outside the United States. Dolan says six different designs are under consideration, including one as small as 3,000 seats. It's a fascinating journey for an idea that began with a stick figure drawn inside a circle on a notepad. The Sphere is much more than a concert hall or movie theater, and it's impossible to turn back now.
"This is a medium," Dolan says. "It's not just a building … it's going to continue to develop. When we first started to make motion pictures, what was the end goal for that? It wasn't Star Wars. No one knew Star Wars was coming. I hope we're going to see our own Star Wars here. I hope creators come here and develop this well beyond what we even imagined."