May 11, 2024

Photo Essay: The Sphere Has Landed in Vegas—And What An Experience It is

Las Vegas may have changed a lot since my first visit in the 1990s—and I may feel nostalgic for a version of Vegas I never actually got to experience—but I still love to visit the place, as ever-changing as it may be, even just to admire its audacity. 

The latest addition to the Vegas skyline is the Sphere—the world's largest spherical structure with the world's largest screen, which opened in September 2023 after five years of construction. 

I hadn't noticed it during my April 2023 Vegas trip. But in April of this year, I couldn't miss it. 

Between its striking shape and eye-catching LED animations, it felt like an eyeball whose gaze followed me wherever I went. I was always kind of aware of where it was—and where I was in relation to it.

I unfortunately missed the chance to see U2's residency at the Sphere last fall and earlier this year—but hearing about it piqued my interest enough to book the Sphere Experience, just so I could get inside.


...and the Sphere really leans into that futuristic aspect with its embrace of AI, encouraging guests to spend their first hour in the Atrium space interacting with robots...

...who demonstrate the benefits of technology to longevity, creativity, productivity, innovation, and connection. 
They're all named Aura—and they all refer to their human handlers as "robot coordinators." They're also very polite; and they're programmed to be funny, too.

It's a weird waystation until you get into the main attraction—like a spaceship loading dock where you've got to mingle with aliens before being allowed to take a trip anywhere. 

At a cost of $2.3 billion, the building itself is actually interesting enough without all the bleeps and bloops. Although positioned just behind The Venetian, it's got little in common with the hotels and casinos and even new resorts of the Las Vegas Strip. 

But the main attraction is inside the dome itself—and in between concerts by bands like U2, Phish, and Dead & Company, there's a film by director Darren Aronofsky (Postcard from Earth) that takes advantage of the 270-degree screen. 

Although it can seat nearly 18,000, it feels small inside the Sphere—and I felt small, too, faced with images of our planet Earth and landscapes from five continents. 

Imagine a planetarium show, like at Griffith Observatory—but instead of looking up at the stars, you're looking down onto the plains and oceans and canyons and such.

Aronofsky shot the mostly aerial footage in 18K with the Big Sky ultra-high resolution camera system—taking audiences on a journey not unlike the "Soarin' Around the World" (formerly "Soarin' Over California") attraction at Disneyland's California Adventure theme park in Anaheim, or the Circle-Vision 360° films that show at Epcot in Orlando. 

Except an entirely new camera had to be invented just to accomplish this feat, projecting in 16K on the world’s highest-resolution LED screen. And while the seats rumble amidst some 4D elements, audiences never actually achieve any lift-off.
The Sphere has become a popular tourist attraction in Vegas even for those who never make it inside—thanks to the visuals of its exoskeleton (or "Exosphere"), which rotate between abstract and natural visuals an a big yellow smiley emoji, with some advertisements interspersed in between. 

Although the building itself is massive—366' tall by 516' wide—it's actually hard to get up close to it at night to watch the light show unless you've got a ticket. That's why they've been selling spectator admission to the roof of one of the nearby parking structures—and why the pedestrian bridge that connects The Palazzo to the Wynn across Sands Avenue attracts so many photographers who can stop and gawk where cars aren't allowed to pull over.

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