Since the emergence of amphitheaters and large concert venues, audiences have experienced live and pre-recorded sounds primarily in the same audio tech format: performers are plugged into a venue’s public address system (PA system) and the sound is projected through a system of loud speakers throughout a stadium. The performance is then often broadcast on one or more large screens posted throughout the venue. Many shows take place in some kind of sports arena. This system has been what audiences have known for years; however, innovative audio technology is revolutionizing the concert experience to help curate a production that audiences have never seen or heard before. James Dolan, CEO of Madison Square Garden Co, is bringing this vision into tangible form with the creation the MSG Sphere.
Having broken ground in Las Vegas in June of 2018, the MSG Sphere will soon be the host to new technology designed to make live performances a unique and transformative experience for concertgoers. The 18,000-seat arena built by the MSG Company (Madison Square Garden) will host concerts and other events that will engage all the five senses of its audience members. Towering 200 feet tall and having a width of over 500 feet, the MSG Sphere will be a concert venue like no other. The Sphere will contain a 19,000 by 13,500 resolution LED screen that stretches across the ceiling, will have high speed internet at each seat, a sound system that pumps bass through the floorboards, and a thirty-six-mile-long strip of LED lighting on the outer dome that will exhibit a 360-degree IMAX display for people outside the sphere so they will be able to view what is happening inside. There will also be a camera system located outside the city that will have the ability to project on the dome. This system has the capability to make the dome virtually disappear by projecting real time images and videos of its surroundings. Addressing these futuristic qualities at the unveiling of the MSG Sphere, James Dolan explained how science fiction played a part in influencing these technical developments. He specifically referenced Ray Bradbury’s The Veldt, due to its similarities of features that the MSG Sphere will possess, such as “a nursery with crystal walls (LED screen), where users can have experiences over all five senses.”
Unlike other arenas that provide a space for both concerts and sports, The MSG Sphere looks to exclusively host live concerts, specifically EDM, eSports tournaments, and conferences. Dolan and the MSG Co. have no intention of making the venue available for sporting events, apart from potentially fighting tournaments, because they want the arena to stand out specifically for concerts and conferences. This venue has been designed ideally for EDM performances due to the fact that much of the artistry of EDM occurs before the performance with the actual live show being known as the “run.” The inspiration of the MSG Sphere came when Dolan realized this aspect of EDM performances thereby influencing his aim of creating an experience both the performer and audience could share, stating “It’s no longer just about what is happening on stage, it’s about what’s happening in the audience.” All of these varying technological aspects, such as bass booming through the floors, the large LED screens, and the 360-degree lights are not the only way the MSG Co. is planning on improving the concert experience. By partnering with companies such as Holoplot, a Berlin-based tech company that engineers sound waves, MSG Co. is bringing revolutionized audio technology to the concert experience via beamforming audio.
Beamforming itself is not a new technology. In the 1930s and 40s, beamforming helped develop technology such as the radar; however, for audio experiences, beamforming is generally new. By definition, beamforming is “a signal processing technique used in sensor arrays for directional signal transmission or reception.” In translation to audio, instead of projecting sound through a speaker system into a large area, beamforming audio allows the sound to be focused on specific locations, such as a certain section of an audience or even a specific audience seat. This creates a different listening experience for each audience member. The physics behind beamforming is much like the physics used to make noise cancellation headphones. Manipulation of the sine waves produced by the audio allows an audio engineer to pick where the waves are going. In noise cancellation headphones, microphones on the outside of the headphone pick up outside noise and manipulate it by producing a wave out of phase from the frequencies coming in. In acoustic beamforming, the angles of the speakers, along with a few other aspects, allow audio engineers to manipulate the waveforms coming out.
Application of Audio Tech to the MSG Sphere
Supplementary to this individual audio experience, the MSG Sphere will also provide WiFi at each seat. Its function is not just for concertgoers to share their experiences with friends via social media. Each seat will have a WiFi router that is capable of picking up the beamforming audio that the speakers project. These routers have multiple-input, multiple-output capabilities that allow the speakers to focus on each seat. To put it in perspective, in an actual demonstration by Holoplot, two reporters sitting next to each other said to have heard different languages during the same experience: one heard German, while the other heard English.2
Holoplot and other companies working with beamforming seek to bring this audio to your home in the future. Due to the falling cost of signal processing chips, this technology has been growing more and more accessible to research recently. Many companies are developing ways to implement the technology into sound systems for your home television and laptop computer, along with other devises that contain speaker systems. For example, this technology may allow two television viewers to listen to the same program at different volumes. This is just one of the potential capabilities of beamforming technology. As companies continue to conduct research, there may be more uses for it in the future.
The MSG Co. has reported that they expect the arena to be open in 2020. Furture plans also call for the building of a glass dome with similar technology and purpose in East London. In regards to beamforming audio, Holoplot plans to debut their technology’s capabilities at the 2018 Rockettes Christmas Show at Radio City Music Hall. 2 The MSG Co. hopes that the MSG Sphere in Las Vegas will not only attract concertgoers, but also artists seeking to give a performance like no other.
Hu, Cherie. “Why Madison Square Garden Thinks It Has Designed the Venue Of the Future.” Billboard. February 09, 2018. Accessed October 12, 2018. https://www.billboard.com/articles/business/8098888/msg-sphere-venue-madison-square-garden.
Blumenthal, Eli. “How Madison Square Garden Co. Is Aiming to Make Every Seat the Best in the House.” USA Today. February 09, 2018. Accessed October 12, 2018. https://www.usatoday.com/story/money/2018/02/08/how-madison-square-garden-co-aiming-make-every-seat-best-house/318516002/.
Contents, WA. “MSG Plans to Build Supersonic and High-tech Reddish Sphere for Concert Venue in Las Vegas.” World Architecture Community. February 12, 2018. Accessed October 12, 2018. https://worldarchitecture.org/architecture-news/cmhhm/msg_plans_to_build_supersonic_and_hightech_reddish_sphere_for_concert_venue_in_las_vegas.html.
Geier, Eric. “All about Beamforming, the Faster Wi-Fi You Didn’t Know You Needed.” PCWorld. November 08, 2013. Accessed October 12, 2018. https://www.pcworld.com/article/2061907/networking/all-about-beamforming-the-faster-wi-fi-you-didnt-know-you-needed.html.
“Making All the Right Noises: Shaping Sound with Audio Beamforming.” MATLAB & Simulink. Accessed October 12, 2018. https://www.mathworks.com/company/newsletters/articles/making-all-the-right-noises-shaping-sound-with-audio-beamforming.html.