How Las Vegas’ Sphere is inspiring fulldome performances around the globe

Set in motion by the launch of the Sphere in Las Vegas, ‘fulldome’ venues are garnering greater attention and creating immersive spaces that can transport you to another world altogether

U2 performing at the Sphere in Las Vegas on September 30, 2023, photo by Kevin Mazur/Getty Images for Live Nation

U2 performing at the Sphere in Las Vegas on September 30, 2023. Image: Kevin Mazur/Getty Images for Live Nation

Did the roof of the Sphere in Las Vegas really open up a little bit, at the exact moment a helicopter flew immediately overhead? The 20,000-strong U2 audience inside the venue saw it, we heard it, and we felt it, so it certainly seems like it happened. Even now, I’m not so sure whether it was technical trickery or U2’s Bono making a dramatic entrance.

Just as the best tech is indistinguishable from magic, any digital aircraft appearing on Sphere’s 15,000 m2 16k resolution immersive screen – accompanied by spatial audio from 1,600 speakers – is impossible to distinguish from a real one.

Add the haptic seating that rumbles on cue, the wind machines, and a way to diffuse scent around the space, and this is a place where all your senses can deceive you and transport you to another world altogether.

U2 are the first act to have a residency at Sphere’s new immersive screen venue and – in the same way any big-budget stadium show might have big-screen artwork for every song – this show has vast wraparound worlds. Visuals have been custom-made for the show by a range of artists including George Lucas’ Industrial Light & Magic, who were responsible for ABBA Voyage.

U2 performing at the Sphere in Las Vegas on September 30, 2023, photo by Kevin Mazur/Getty Images for Live Nation
U2 performing at the Sphere in Las Vegas on September 30, 2023. Image: Kevin Mazur/Getty Images for Live Nation

While the outside of the venue is very much tied to artwork having a dome-shaped appearance, inside the venue the visual art can make the dome shape completely disappear, turning it into either an infinite space or an even smaller one.

Throughout the show, we’re taken through landscapes both realistic and fantastical. A giant flag burns in the desert; a gleaming ball floats in the ocean; a giant tower of code becomes a cube-shaped room with a ceiling threatening to crush us. There’s even a section of the show with live-action footage of Las Vegas itself, so crisp it looks like the outside has suddenly become the inside.

One particular highlight is artwork by Italian-Canadian artist Marco Brambilla, which sees a scrolling collage of famous Vegas scenes make its way down the screen so we can spot landmarks, Elvis and characters from Showgirls as U2 belt out Even Better Than The Real Thing. At other times, the screen simply shows close-ups of the band’s faces a few storeys high.

U2 performing at the Sphere in Las Vegas in front of ‘King Size’, a work created by Marco Brambilla using generative AI technology, photo by Kevin Mazur/Getty Images for Live Nation
U2 performing at the Sphere in Las Vegas in front of ‘King Size’, a work created by Marco Brambilla using generative AI technology. Image: Kevin Mazur/Getty Images for Live Nation

It’s the largest, most technologically advanced, and most talked about venue and show of its kind. But what’s happening at Sphere is not an entirely new art form, nor is Vegas the only place you can see live performances and immersive visuals inside a dome screen. This kind of venue and experience is often called ‘fulldome’, and it has a creative community who have been working away for decades to bring it to new audiences and to recruit new talent.

Fulldome simply means a piece of film or performance made for a dome-shaped screen. It includes the immersive space and science films in planetariums, but there’s a whole world of art and cultural films and performances for fulldome that have nothing to do with space or science.

Sometimes fulldome is only a film. Sometimes it’s a live performance with immersive visuals inside a dome. While its arena-like scale and new curved LED technology makes Sphere a completely new beast, other smaller venues use projectors to achieve a similar effect.

Some of these purely artistic fulldome shows can be seen in planetariums if they have the resources and interest to show them. When they do, it can work wonderfully. The Charles Hayden Planetarium at the Museum of Science in Boston, for example, now has an evening fulldome programme including music and drag performance that’s become so successful it subsidises the planetarium’s space and science activity. In the UK, Dynamic Earth planetarium in Edinburgh has programmed fulldome art films during the Fringe, and We The Curious planetarium in Bristol has hosted VJing and fulldome films during the music festival Simple Things.

U2 performing during the opening night of U2: UV Achtung Baby Live at the Sphere in Las Vegas on September 29, 2023, photo by Kevin Mazur/Getty Images for Live Nation
U2 performing during the opening night of U2: UV Achtung Baby Live at the Sphere in Las Vegas on September 29, 2023. Image: Kevin Mazur/Getty Images for Live Nation

There are also fulldome venues around the world which are, like Vegas’ Sphere, dedicated to arts and culture rather than to space and science. The Vortex dome opened in LA in 2010, hosting anything from ballet to EDM parties. The pandemic closed that particular dome, but the team behind it are now working to open a network of permanent fulldome venues.

Wisdome opened in LA from 2018-2023 as a fulldome park filled with temporary domes up to 700-person capacity in size. Opening with trippy Android Jones film Samskara and the accompanying art exhibition, it also hosted gigs, gong baths and meditation sessions. Wisdome also cheekily popped up as an unofficial addition to SXSW 2022, where it set up a dome park outside the Austin Convention Center and put on a whole programme of live music and fulldome film.

The Satosphere (SAT) in Montreal, Canada, is one of the most well-respected fulldome venues in the world. Located at the Society for Arts and Technology, it’s a lab that offers artist residencies for the creation of new fulldome art. SAT is unusual in the fulldome world because it has full floor-to-ceiling projection. Think of a planetarium, with its screen beginning at about head height, or Sphere where a large section of the wall is covered by the rows of seating. Instead, SAT is nothing but a dome-shaped screen down to the floor and around the space, with no permanent seating, giving the effect of total immersion, as well as total flexibility for artists to try out new things.

Art historian and curator Sir Nicholas Serota at Devonport Market Hall’s 360 immersive dome in Plymouth, photo by Ben Birchall/PA Images via Getty Images
Art historian and curator Sir Nicholas Serota at Devonport Market Hall’s 360 immersive dome in Plymouth. Image: Ben Birchall/PA Images via Getty Images

There are currently two venues in the UK dedicated to fulldome art. Market Hall in Plymouth is modelled on SAT in Montreal, with floor-to-ceiling immersion. It’s a place where fulldome art can be both seen and made, all inside a historic building repurposed for creative business. CultVR in Cardiff is an artist-run experimental venue and lab with late-night events and live music, and its dome is suspended from the ceiling inside a warehouse on the outskirts of the city.

A dome can be used as scenography, a canvas, or a cinema screen. It can incorporate interactivity from wearable tech, motion sensors, game controllers and audio input. Added to this, audiences are put inside the screen rather than simply watching it, and that makes it a fun tool for artists to play with.

One musician who’s recently created a show for fulldome venues is British turntablist DJ Yoda, aka Duncan Beiny, who saw the potential to use this immersive screen to create a new kind of experience for audiences at his AV shows. After taking part in a lab event run by Live Cinema UK* at the CultVR dome, he developed a fulldome version of his existing show with new visuals created just for the dome.

The Sphere in Las Vegas during the opening night of U2: UV Achtung Baby Live at the Sphere on September 29, 2023, photo by Tayfun Coskun/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images
The Sphere in Las Vegas during the opening night of U2: UV Achtung Baby Live at the Sphere on September 29, 2023. Image: Tayfun Coskun/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

“I started off working with just audio,” says Beiny, “and then I started working with video. My whole interest in DJing has been about what other places you can push it and where else you can take it with technology.

“At one point I thought to myself, ‘3D might be an interesting thing to investigate or holographic stuff or projection mapping’. But when I saw the dome at Cardiff, it made me realise that it’s a really interesting way to make the video infinitely more immersive than a 2D screen in front of you.

“I work with samples a lot, especially video samples from YouTube and from movies,” he adds. “But I feel like the dome aspect allows you to make that much more immersive and much more about environment. For instance, I’ve done a lot of stuff with Stranger Things, the [Netflix] show, and previously I would have taken clips from Stranger Things and used that in an audiovisual show. But with the dome, I can actually put people in The Upside Down [a concept in the show], like in the actual kind of environment.”

Existing shows for fulldome are many and varied, featuring film, dance, theatre, repurposed virtual reality, immersive games and live music. The fulldome community in the UK is particularly strong; as well as having two UK fulldomes, a lot of creative work for fulldome is produced in the UK, and the Fulldome UK Festival is one of the most respected events in the world dedicated to the art.

The Sphere lights up for the first time in Las Vegas in celebration of Independence Day on July 4, 2023, photo by Greg Doherty/Getty Images
The Sphere lights up for the first time in Las Vegas in celebration of Independence Day on July 4, 2023. Image: Greg Doherty/Getty Images

The fulldome community was full of excitement about the opening of Las Vegas’ Sphere, and its potential to make people aware of fulldome through its huge marketing campaigns. The outside of Sphere, with its dome-shaped LED screen measuring 112m high and 157m wide, has provided an ever-changing light show to passers-by, whether they’re on foot or in a plane. We’ve seen the Sphere’s exterior as a giant emoji watching people fly in and out of Vegas, as a huge basketball, a pumpkin, a monstrous eyeball, a cat playing with lasers, the list goes on.

But it was for this reason that Sadiq Khan just shot down the idea that London will have its own Sphere. Light pollution might be a non-issue in Vegas, but it doesn’t work so well in residential cities. Without the glowing exterior, Sphere can’t charge advertisers, and the Vegas model may not work. This hasn’t deterred the Mayor of Tees Valley from reaching out to Sphere operators the Madison Square Garden Entertainment Company (MSG) to start the massive ball rolling on a Sphere in Teesside.

Regardless of whether we see a Sphere venue open in the UK, we can expect fulldome in general to grow as more people realise its potential for all kinds of performance. Planetariums, temporary domes and new fulldome venues are all still available, and there’s a global network of fulldome obsessives ready to ride the wave Sphere has set in motion.

*[Editor’s note: Alongside being a contributor to MusicTech, Kate Wellham is also the immersive coordinator at Live Cinema UK]

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