MSG’s Sphere Takes Live Immersive Sound to the Next Level With Holoplot
Sports are on the agenda for the new Las Vegas venue’s audio engine
The iconic Madison Square Garden has long been known as the home of the NBA’s Knicks and NHL’s Rangers and the host of a wide range of sports from boxing to bull riding. It has also been a venerable music and entertainment venue, hosting, for example, Bing Crosby, the Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, David Bowie, and Billy Joel’s recently concluded residency.
So it wasn’t a stretch when, in 2018, Madison Square Garden Entertainment announced plans to build the Sphere, a singular 20,000-seat music and entertainment venue near the Las Vegas Strip. Currently known as the Sphere at The Venetian Resort, the venue is owned by Sphere Entertainment Co., whose executive chairman/CEO is James Dolan, head of multiple MSG entities.
Scheduled to open next month with a residency by Irish rockers U2, the arena is a hollow ball peppered inside with thousands of speakers and hundreds of square feet of the highest-resolution video screens on earth. Although the venue is intended as an entertainment proposition, the immersive-audio platform chosen for it, which consists of 1,600 speakers and loudspeaker modules comprising 67,000 individually amplified drivers, could have its own applications for sports seeking ways to use sound to more deeply engage audiences.“Absolutely,” responds Holoplot CEO Roman Sick when asked if he can envision any application for the audio system in the near or far future for sports, particularly live sports but certainly also broadcast sports. “With arena sports, for example, there’s a number of issues that we can address. First of all, the acoustics in an arena usually make it quite difficult to get across a really exciting experience, as reverberations often render the content unintelligible or difficult to localize. We have the capability to significantly increase intelligibility, which would also help for broadcast sound.”
Sick notes a proof-of-concept project at train station in Holoplot’s native Germany: the technology — integrating spatial- and immersive-audio capabilities, such as real-time panning of object-based audio, with managed signal processing — transformed quotidian, usually sonically muddled track announcements into crystal-clear conversation-like exchanges between a disembodied announcer and hundreds of people in the space.
What works in the train hall can work in the hockey or basketball arena. The idea of 3D sound in this case isn’t how it’s perceived dimensionally. Instead, it’s perceived as an invisible sonic scaffolding that lets Holoplot’s beamforming technology define precise shaping and steering of beams in two dimensions to create sound fields that optimally cover audience areas of any shape and size, and its wave-field synthesis algorithm creates highly defined localization with lifelike directional perception of audio objects.
“We achieve this by controlling the sound on the three-dimensional axis,” Sick explains. “Thus, we control a large portion of the room acoustics, [which are] typically the issue that decreases your speech intelligibility. Speech intelligibility is just the relationship between direct sound and reflections. The more direct sound I get versus reflections, the better the intelligibility, and vice versa.
“If we can [direct] sound only to the audience,” he continues, “the intelligibility becomes phenomenal. That is the most basic thing you need to do to make the live sports event attractive to [attend] versus watching it at home on a great home entertainment system. The sound in venues needs to improve so it can create the best possible atmosphere. That’s what gets the audience into the venue — the emotional impact — because [the fans] can’t get that at home.”
More specifically, Sick says, Holoplot’s ability to target sound onto very precise areas — to the point where one group of seats can hear a completely different program than the seats immediately adjacent — addresses one of any sports venue’s most singular experiences: intensely partisan fan chants and making areas where fans gather as large as they need to be on a given game day.
Further, he suggests that the Holoplot approach to coverage can help venues mitigate certain architectural challenges, such as the Plexiglas surrounding ice-hockey rinks, which can reflect and deflect sound in ways that contribute to intelligibility problems. He speculates that such ultra-precise sound can be used to re-create the acoustical characteristics of specific venues, allowing virtual reproduction of concerts or even sports matches remotely, even in real time. It’s not such a far-fetched idea: Christopher Lee, an architect with sports- and entertainment-venue maven Populous, has suggested that a next big frontier for sports is holographic representation, describing a world where players might be beamed onto a field from thousands of miles away.
“If you want to re-create an event authentically from one location into another location,” says Sick, “you need to transport that room’s acoustical impression. It needs to sound like that room; it needs to sound like that experience, even if the other room might have completely different properties. A spatial-audio system like Holoplot helps you to do that. The ability to control the sound in these spaces gives you the ability to control the experience.”