In the first of episode of a two-parter, we visit The Sphere, in Las Vegas Nevada with a before and after personal reflection of my first encounter with the site, and how my expectations meshed with the reality of the experience. We ponder the site both inside and out, and whether The Sphere is the future of filmmaking, or if it is just a one-shot globe in the dark. Also: Robots! What’s up with that. Join us and find out.
What matters more, form or content? The container or what’s inside? And if you take the goods out of the package, do you keep the wrappings? These are some of the questions we’re trying to address in our two part series on the Sphere in Las Vegas. This is part one, where we’ll be looking at the venue itself, the Sphere, whose bright screen has already changed the skyline of Vegas forever.
Let’s take a closer look on the inside and the outside. In this episode of The Implausipod.
Welcome to The Implausipod, a podcast about the intersection of art, technology, and popular culture. I’m your host, Dr. Implausible. And as stated, this episode is going to be about the Sphere, but the organization for this episode is going to be a little bit different than our normal one. We’re going to start with some background information, some historical information, as we like to do.
And then we have a brief interview with myself prior to actually visiting the sphere for the first time. Following that, there’s a post-visit interview, kind of like reflections or initial impressions. And then I just want to detail kind of like a critical view of the venue as stated also in the outset, we’re going to talk about the film Darren Aronofsky’s Postcard From Earth in another episode that follows. This episode focuses mostly on the facility itself.
So without further ado, a brief interview with Dr. Implausible. And just a quick editor’s note, there’s a little bit of background hum on the interview. I wasn’t quite able to take that all out, so hopefully it’s not too distracting, but it’s a brief interview, so hopefully it’ll be gone soon.
So, it is noon on Sunday, October 29th, and we’re about to go check out the Sphere, or at least in a couple hours, and here’s some initial thoughts.
So, How about that experience beforehand and then after? Well, since we came to Vegas earlier this year, the Sphere was already showing off stuff on the screen and it stood up like nothing else. Why did you come? Again, we were here earlier and we stayed at Vdara and you could see the Sphere from everywhere and it kind of lit up the night sky.
And so when we had the opportunity to come back, we knew we had to come in and see it. And so What I’m really curious about is I started writing a piece called The Topology of Cyberspace at the time to kind of get down my first impressions of it. Because the Sphere looks like nothing else. It doesn’t look natural in any way.
It looks like an alien ship kind of crash landed in the middle of the desert. And it has images going across it. A lot of times it’s just advertisements. Sometimes it’s like an emoji or something like that. I think the most interesting ones for me are when they put it into Windows screensaver mode. And just colors and patterns kind of undulate across the surface.
Right now there’s a boxing match being shown, but the more interesting stuff is the, just the pure images of light and color. Like right now, the blue in waves kind of just passes across it. And if the light catches it just right, you can see the structure underneath it, like a dome within a dome. But as I go, I think the most interesting thing to check out, oh, we’ve got blue ocean and humpback whales sailing by.
I think the most interesting thing is going to be the show inside, but there’s also like some robots and some other higher tech creations on the path in from the Venetian. So I really want to see the whole thing.
What was the perspective the first time and then what’s the perspective this time?
Okay, so the first time I was here, I saw it from the room in Vdara at night.
And there with Paris in the background and the link, Ferris wheel, it kind of looks otherworldly. And now I’m looking at it from Harrah’s from the back, kind of across the parking lots, and it’s still there. It looks a little bit more normal, mundane, but it’s still fascinating. It’s that pure curve that it carves against the blue sky with the mountains in the background.
And it’s, I don’t know, it’s, like I said, like cyberspace kind of made manifest in reality. It looks like nothing else, but then that’s kind of how Vegas always seems. I really like the look of it, but I’m wondering what the up close experience will be. I’ve seen lots of videos of it since, but I haven’t really seen anything quite like it close up.
So let me ask you a question. Sure. Have you ever, in all of your readings in science fiction, have you ever seen or, not seen, but read anything like that? Or in movies maybe? In science fiction?
In movies a little bit. In science fiction definitely. There’s the old idea of like the Buckminster Fuller’s geodesic domes, and this is kind of like taking that to the ultimate conclusion that it’s so big that actually turns into a sphere. You can’t really see the individual tiles unless you’re close up. So a lot of times in science fiction it was visualized that this would be where people live. They’d live in domes on the surface of the moon or Mars, but in some of the more dystopian science fiction novels, it would be people would live in domes in the cities, because that’s where, you know, the safe air was, and it would be big enough that you could have, like, an environment within it.
So, it’s almost like a precursor to some of that stuff that we might be seeing more of in the future, but this one cost 2 billion dollars. Did it really? Yes. And I don’t know how much that was the original budget and the overruns. And of course, this one has the lights continually going and a lot of them didn’t.
But I think it’s a neat way to conceptualize it. There’s a lot more going on with, like, the idea of, what’s it called? Arcology. Which…
What does that mean? An arcology is kind of like a self contained building where people would work and live and also, but it would have floors that were just like for hydroponics and plants. It’s interesting. And factories. It’s interesting that idea is coming back though. It’s coming back in because of population densities and the need to have more people living in, living close quarters together. So you see that like multi use space. So yeah, so it’s kind of again taking that to a nth degree rather than building out and stretching across the desert, you kind of concentrate your resources in one building so you can have, you know, you don’t necessarily need quite the power use would be similar, but you cut down on transportation and some of those issues.
So, yeah, it’s a really neat idea. There’s a lot of people that are opposed to it, but there’s buildings that you see and things like Chicago and New York and even in the Middle East now that are like that. So, yeah, it’s neat.
This is what I love about Vegas. It’s like adult Disneyland. Yeah, it’s, it’s kind of amazing that they’re kind of building the future, city block by city block out here.
So, what are the two shows that are happening at the Sphere currently? Okay. Well, there’s a concert with U2, where I think the cheap tickets are about 500 bucks each. And then there’s a movie, which is kind of a sci fi plus documentary by Darren Aronofsky, called Postcards from Earth, and that’s the one we’re going to see this afternoon.
So. I’m excited and I’m excited to get close to it. I mean, we’ve walked up kind of close when they were building it a month, two months ago, but it’s open. It’s been open for a month now. So I’m really excited to see what it’s like inside.
That’s right. I am really excited, and as hinted at earlier and kind of interspersed throughout that interview, here’s some of the basic facts about the Sphere.
What exactly is the Sphere? It seems odd to describe a mathematical object in the singular, but for now, it is kind of unique. It is the recently opened multimedia entertainment venue in Las Vegas, Nevada, just off the Strip located behind, or okay, East of, the Venetian and Palazzo resorts and south of the Winds golf course.
It’s curious that directions in Vegas are oriented in cardinality towards the Strip. Near or far, top or bottom, on or behind, but that speaks to the peculiar topographies of Vegas. The Sphere is a seven story theater and or auditorium that seats over 18,000 people. As such, it has more in common with a sporting venue than a traditional auditorium accustomed to orchestra or theater productions.
The inside is massive and converts that sense of verticality onto the audience as they begin their ascent after entering the theater. The ground floor has a number of unique exhibits, and there are several art pieces hanging from the rafters that convey the futuristic aesthetic of the place. Various shades of blues and teals are used for the internal trade dress and colors, and this ambient blue lighting helps the futuristic vibe of the place as well.
The theater itself is all focused on the central stage, and the massive screen that occupies the opposite wall just above it. This is mostly featureless, with a few arrays of something. on the ground below. But while the interior of the Sphere feels like a futuristic Vegas sized auditorium, it is the outside that is something else entirely, something unique that challenges the imagination and forces us to re evaluate our perspective.
Like the hologram advertisements from Japan that often get shown online, echoing the Jaws joke from Back to the Future 2. It strikes against the sky as something unnatural, yet still fitting within the Vegas skyline. The outside of the 112 meter high building is covered in LED panels, creating a display with 54,000 meters squared of display space.
The exterior dome, the exosphere, is like a scaffold that envelops the more traditional venue that houses the theater and when the light hits it, right, or if you’re close enough, the mesh-like structure of the exosphere can be seen through to show the endoskeleton holding it together. Construction of the sphere began in 2018 when ground was broken on the site.
It was a partnership between MSG, or Madison Square Garden Corporation, and the Las Vegas Sands Corporation, though ownership subsequently changed. With MSG being involved, I don’t know if that means they’re going to work their way through the platonic solids and we’ll get Madison Cube Garden by the year 3000, but, you know, stranger things have happened.
The Sphere, much like other unique cinema experiences of the past, often tied into an expo of the like, like the IBM exhibit from the 1964 World’s Fair, or the 1967 Expo in Montreal, which unveiled the first IMAX, tries to do a lot of unique things when it comes to the presentation of cinema, and that link to the IMAX is probably the most direct one.
I mean, the IMAX did start as part of the Montreal Expo project in 1967, showing Two films at the venue specifically constructed for it. And in 1971, the first permanent IMAX theater was built in Toronto. And this really jumpstarted the trend of super large cinema screens. Each and every one of these screens is trying to get closer and closer to that ideal of total cinema that Andre Bazin talked about. That idea that we can have a completely immersive simulation of reality. And we see that in a lot of the VR tools as well, which I think we’ll have to get deeper into in a few weeks time. And I think the best way to maybe talk about that right now is to take a look at what my experience was after entering the sphere.
The second clip are my reflections later that afternoon, after having visited the sphere for the first time. Sadly, I can’t play it for you directly, as there’s too much background noise in the clip for it to be audible or legible on tape, no matter what I tried, but I’ll re record it here for you now, based on the audio that I was able to recover.
Reflections on the sphere. I you know, throw the lapel pin on here and then we’ll see how we go. Staring at it from our hotel room at the Harrah’s, we’re looking right at the sphere. And it’s still kind of fantastic. I think my initial impressions are pretty much the same. But I’m gonna go do a movie review for it, I think I’d like to separate that out. Because it’s interesting how it was done as a movie and I I think it could have been a little bit longer, but I’m not going to get into that now. It’s just, it feels kind of like the sci fi stuff was a wrapper for a BBC documentary, like a high res version of it.
And it’s the material elements, like the material elements of the film, the 18K and 4D, the wind and the feeling of it really kind of. Put the movie over the top. So some of those are tied intimately with the space, the way your whole field of vision is really encompassed by everything that’s on the screen in front of you is fantastic.
I think you could replicate the experience on a regular scheme. It’s just, it would lose. a lot, so much of the stuff that’s on the edges, it kind of disappears. But it’s still there in your peripheral vision, giving a sense of so much, something much larger than what you’d normally experience.
So seeing, the film on the sphere is something fantastic. You get the haptics in the seat coupled with the sound and it’s really impressive sound system. And then once they started adding in the 40 elements, it was just kind of that extra bit. So yeah, as an experience, definitely worth checking out. I’m glad we did.
There are some stage elements to it. Some of like the, parts that made it feel less like a true documentary and some of the rendered footage felt out of place, but again, that’s more tied to the film, and I know that they can do that with video games, but again, it’s not necessarily germane to what we’re seeing on screen.
The way that you’re all funneled into the Sphere itself, you’re waiting, there’s a long walk. I guess the, the Sphere seats 18, 000 or so, and it feels like there’s a sense of anticipation that’s built up by having, you know, this long walk and then this corridor and then everybody waiting. And then you come through, you pour through into the lobby once they finally open the doors and you’re greeted by these robots.
I mean, you walk through this fantastic art pieces and you’re kind of looking around this immaculately designed lobby space, and it just extends upwards to an immense degree, but they have these blue lights on these auras it’s like an Alexa with a animatronic Michikoid that’s kind of around it.
They’re not mobile at all. And they have these hologram. presentation elements next to them. And if you’ve seen any other reasonably high tech event at like a science center or something in the last five years, I don’t think it’s that special, it’s that unique. But they’re neat, and the responsiveness of the robots to the audience questions was also neat.
But there’s like a lot of manpower for lack of a better term in the sphere. It’s a lot of manpower here. They have people just holding like basic science, people that are, you know, in a uniform in some kind of stage dress that are helping people get accustomed to the new environment. It’s, it’s interesting that there’s this hand holding, so to speak, to allow people to experience it.
So there’s a lot of what we might call translation going on here, even though it isn’t translation and language, it’s translation and form like, okay, this is going to be a new place. You might not be used to it. Here’s where you got to go. Here’s how you have to interact. And the robots had handlers too.
And this and every one of these jobs is something that I think could probably be filled by these robots if they’re mobile, you know, it’s just like, here’s where you go, here’s how you interact, but because we’re not used to asking humanoid robots questions the same way some people are used to asking their personal spybots questions at home, again, Alexa, Alexa, Alexa, Alexa.
There’s some learning that needs to take place, and while the sphere is packing people in at 18, 000 people a time, it’s going to take a while before a lot more people are accustomed to it. Now, on the exterior, I think there’s also something that was really interesting, especially when you got close up.
The Sphere is at its most interesting when it’s not used as a billboard, right? Like sometimes it’ll have an advertisement for a UFC event or something else going on, but when it just has the general emojis and pumpkin faces and moons and like, it’s in that undulating windows screensaver mode, it’s interesting, but When it, you know, it just has some whimsy to it when it’s in business mode for lack of a better term it loses some of that.
It’s banal. It’s huge and it has a weird space but like the shape, the outline that it carves against the other buildings even in a dynamic place like Vegas. It It’s just another billboard, but if it has some whimsy to it, then it’s it’s a little bit more fun and you can Interact with it in a sense now Yeah, right as I was just as I was viewing that there was an advertising for some convention Apex and car stuff.
I think there was a convention going on in the Venetian or the Palazzo at the same time. So, but it’s like a YouTube video kind of thing, and it’s the whimsical non commodified stuff where it becomes interesting. It’s not necessarily art. It doesn’t feel art, but it doesn’t feel like it’s tied to commerce in the same way.
If it was all ads, 24 7, it would just be another big billboard, and that is, um, boring. The emojis and the whimsical stuff makes it unique and exciting. And when it moves, when there’s a high degree of motion on it, it seems somehow more fantastical. The resolution is impressive, but when you get close up to it, you can kind of see through it, and Again, it, it has that weird superstructure and that something obscured or hidden underneath and it, it, it feels a little, it almost feels unfinished when you get close up, but that’s just the nature of the structure.
But I think the most interesting thing was, well, I guess, my reaction to it, and then the robots, the, how they may end up replacing the jobs of the people that are currently involved in those positions. I want to go into that a little bit longer, but right now I have to hike down back through Bellagio to get to the hotel.
So thanks. We’ll talk to you soon. Bye.
So after having visited the Sphere, inside and out, I’m still enthusiastic about it. I still like it, and while I’m not lining up to get tickets for Phish when they start appearing in 2024, I’m keeping my eye out for new productions that might be showing on the Sphere, whether it’s in Las Vegas or another location.
I think, overall, the experience is unique and still marvelous, and I’d go back to even just try out Darren Aronofsky’s Postcard from Earth again. Give it one more view as again, I don’t necessarily know how much that translates, but we’ll think about that in a different episode here. We’ll talk about that later.
Thinking about the Sphere from a critical perspective, though, I just, I wonder how it’s going to spread that tie to IMAX where IMAX was a very singular and unique. many years before it started seeing widespread distribution is something we might see with the sphere as well, though if we look at the IMAX, which cost 4.5 million in 1967, would only be 39 million in 2023, and nowhere near the Two billion that was required for the construction of the sphere as a site in Las Vegas. Now, much of that has to do with the exterior, but is the exterior tied to the presentation, or is that just something that enables the audiences to kind of attract and draws the attention in?
The exterior of the sphere is almost a completely different thing and could fit well within Vegas and its skyline. The idea of the Sphere, the Sphere’s technologies residing within just a regular building, a regular venue, albeit large, in London or Dubai or Shanghai or anywhere else, It might seem a little bit more affordable and a little bit more possible for something like that to exist.
With the shifting cultural context of cities that are able to support the arts, we need to think about how that happens. Not every city has a Philharmonic, and even a number of them have shuttered them, even if they had them in the past. Baumol’s Cost Disease applies here as well as it does across so many of the performing arts.
There’s only so much productivity that can be gained from any one band member, and so you have to either raise ticket prices or find some other way to deal with it, which is why we see such exorbitant rates for concerts right now in the 2020s. But the idea of the theatre as a tourist site allows for a different model where it changes the use patterns for a super cinema.
We saw in recent years where Oppenheimer was able to drive people back to IMAX for viewing, but not all theaters can support that. Avatar was a driver of 3D adoption in cinemas as well, so occasionally it happens. And these films will also drive the Purchase of new home technologies as well. The way that Oppenheimer is driving Blu ray purchases, even though again, that’s rare as did avatar and the matrix before it.
So cultural artifacts can drive technological adoption, but most cinema is not like this. So we need to think about, again, what is the sphere really for? It may not be sustainable. With a hundred million dollar loss in its first year of operations, the sphere, even in a place with money to burn like Las Vegas, might not have a long existence.
It may have to adopt other forms or other models of revenue generation, in which case we can see advertising on the outside. But is that all it is? two billion dollar billboard? I don’t think so. There’s got to be other models for it. And maybe it’s just the necessity of it being the first one in which drove up the costs.
And if they could bring that down, perhaps we’ll see more of them in other places. If the sphere follows a similar adoption curve to IMAX, then it might take some time. But again, at least there’s a path that has been already carved out there. But the sphere has some other challenges as well. Part of that is lack of infrastructure.
I mean, Las Vegas is, you know, for all intents and purposes, a company town. And with 50 parking and no direct public transportation, there’s, you know, challenges at just accessing the site. You don’t quite have the ability to, you know, have the volume of people going through to it that it would need to sustain itself right now.
And then, lastly, we have the idea of The Auras. The robots, including their handlers, the animatronic full torso robots, not mobile, but at least, you know active and engaged with the audience. Like I mentioned in the commentary, it feels kind of like an Alexa connected to a Michicoid. But these are tools that could replace staff.
And, you know, potentially at some point in time. I guess the question is why they need handlers. But there’s some you know, and how deeply tied they are with the organization as well. It feels like those need an entirely different discussion. And perhaps we’ll look into this, this idea of replacement of change and what happens when we have robotic workers.
But as I stated, I think the most important thing for me is the idea that right now, the sphere at its best when viewed from outside provides. whimsy and something unusual, something we don’t necessarily expect within the skylines of our modern cityscapes. And for that, for at least providing a few moments of sublime beauty and my visits to Vegas, I’m a fan.
Stay tuned for part two of our review of The Sphere, where we take a closer look at the movie on screen. Darren Aronofsky’s postcard from earth and how that relates to cinema and documentary filmmaking. Once again, I’m your host, Dr. Implausible. Research, writing, editing, and recording has been by me. The podcast is licensed under a Creative Odd Commons 4.0 share like license. No AI has been used in the production of this podcast. And it’s been a pleasure to have you with me. Take care. We’ll talk to you soon.