Home Virtual Reality Inside the Vegas Sphere: Dawn of a New Media Format

Inside the Vegas Sphere: Dawn of a New Media Format


Watch this: Las Vegas Sphere: Everything You Need to Know

The folks behind the Sphere started construction on the venue in 2018, facing down supply chain issues caused by COVID; novel challenges in both video and acoustics; and a ballooning budget. Even before it opened its doors, the massive orb looked like a midconstruction Death Star rising over the Las Vegas skyline. 

I visited the newly opened Sphere while in town covering CES 2024 and got a behind-the-scenes look at how it achieves a VR-like experience without headsets. I also checked out the brand-new camera system that was invented to make it all possible.

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The exosphere lights up the Vegas skyline at night.

John Kim/CNET

The Atrium

People with tickets to the Sphere Experience start their visit in the Atrium, a gathering area filled with art displays and tech demos that guests can explore while waiting for their show to start.

During my visit, there were volumetric scanners that let you get a 3D scan of yourself; AI-themed artwork (perhaps playing to the CES crowd); and a demo of the Sphere’s audio technology, which allows different languages or different parts of a song to be heard in different areas (similar to what I experienced during my visit to the Sphere’s cousin, the Big Dome in Burbank where content can be developed for the Vegas venue). However, the star of the Atrium exhibit was a team of Aura robots, which were stationed at various points throughout the Atrium to answer questions, introduce demos and interact with the crowd. 

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An Aura robot dancing for Sphere visitors.

Jesse Orrall/CNET

The familiar-looking humanoid Aura ‘bot is an updated version of Ameca, the robot we saw at CES 2022. I know because I asked one of the robots myself. It showed off its conversational abilities, identifying people in the crowd by what they were wearing and remembering their names after they shared them. Aura assured me it doesn’t store people’s names after the show.

Alex Luthwaite, VP of show systems technology for the Sphere, told me the Atrium exhibits will change as new shows come in, and that they’ll be thematically tied to whatever show is going on.

After about an hour of meandering through the Atrium and interrogating the Aura ‘bots, I entered the theater, where Postcard From Earth would be playing.

The screening

Immediately on entering, you could feel the acoustic changes in the air. Though the Atrium felt busy and echoey, the show space felt like a vacuum with no discernible background noise.

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It’s difficult to capture the scope of the Sphere’s theater, due to its mammoth size and wraparound shape.

Sphere Entertainment

The wraparound 16K screen is 160,000 square feet, equivalent to more than two and a half football fields.

Whenever the camera cuts, you feel transported, because the screen wraps around your peripheral vision.

In one scene, I remember looking over my shoulder and seeing a giraffe staring at the camera — this would’ve gone unnoticed if I’d kept my eyes forward. Wind cannons, vibrations, and other sensory manipulations add to the immersion.

Ultimately, Postcard From Earth felt like a showcase of the Sphere’s cinematic capabilities, a sampler of all the beauty our own sphere, planet Earth, has to offer presented in a format uniquely capable of capturing such experiences in all their fullness. 

To accomplish such a feat and create a truly new cinematic experience required the creation of a totally new camera system: Big Sky.

The camera

Most 360-degree video captured and displayed today is achieved using an array (two or more cameras recording simultaneously), the images from which are stitched together via computer software.

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Camera array used to film early Sphere videos.

Sphere Entertainment

The Sphere began its camera-testing journey using an array of cinema cameras, and I was treated to some of the images from those tests when I visited the Big Dome in Burbank. However, the Sphere team eventually decided they had to make their own camera to get where they were going.

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The first-of-its-kind Big Sky camera for Spherical cinema.

Jesse Orrall/CNET

The result is Big Sky, an 18K-resolution behemoth that looks more like a weapon of war than a cinema camera. Because of the abnormal screen size and shape, filmmakers using Big Sky preview the images by wearing a VR headset, which can also show them where the audience would be inside the Sphere.

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Filmmakers can preview Big Sky camera shots using a VR headset.

Sphere Entertainment

That’s when something clicked for me. I’d been wondering what would happen to films made for the Sphere after their theatrical run wound down. It’s not like a Blu-ray of Postcard From Earth would do the experience justice. Now I had a possible answer: home release in VR. The Sphere is like a new type of movie theater, and the VR headset is like the Blu-ray player. A peek at this sort of thing can already be experienced via the Apple Vision Pro and the Meta Quest, since both headsets can play spatial video.

Of course, as with movies, there’s something that can’t be re-created at home: the experience of witnessing together with a full audience.

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