LIGHTING & SOUND INTERNATIONAL :
Full-Circle Possibilities: SphereLabs’ PZ Sphere
A dream team with expertise in event production, lighting design, and bespoke high-tech fabrication have joined forces to form SphereLabs – and to launch a new concept in LED sphere technology. The first-born spin-off of superstar DJ Eric Prydz’s EPIC HOLOSPHERE, which debuted at the Tomorrowland festival in 2019, it aims to catch the eye of both the corporate and creative worlds as an interactive display solution with more than a touch of cool.
Light Initiative’s Bryn Williams has a track record of inventive and unusual illuminating products, with a long history of creating bespoke designs for everything from rock and roll to corporate branding.
Eric Prydz’s 8m tall, video-mapped 3D HOLOSPHERE was a triumph, a piece of millimetre-accurate precision engineering, channelling the talents of Prydz’s long-term collaborators Liam Tomaszewski (Punkette), Ross Chapple (RCLD), Mark Calvert and Dave Green (RES) and Williams. A viral sensation, it further established Williams and Light Initiative as the go-to team for well-rounded, illuminating sphere technology.
Abuzz in the afterglow of EDM staging success, Williams, as the pioneer of this type of construction, quite rightly realised that the monster they’d created needed to live on, and that there were countless applications for light-up spheres in a range of markets.
As with many great ideas, Williams developed his vision at an after party for the Knight of Illumination Awards at London’s Hammersmith Apollo with Dave Stevens, former head of Lighting and Scenic at ITV’s The London Studios, and now MD of UK and US-based production and design organisation, Production Zync.
“It was a meeting of minds, a pooling of talent, and a brazen attempt to ramp-up LED sphere technology and let the general public experience its possibilities,” says Williams. “And when we woke up the next morning, it still seemed like a good idea!”
Adding Production Zync’s creative mastermind and successful lighting designer Steffan Jones to the team, they formed SphereLabs and created its first product: a scaled-down, two-metre-tall LED sphere, retaining HOLOSPHERE’s precision-engineered structure, robustness and creative video-mapping potential. But where HOLOSPHERE had been a semi-transparent, low-resolution LED construction designed as part of a stage set to be viewed by a large festival audience, the new prototype would demonstrate the possibilities for the concept at the opposite end of the event scale. It was smaller, surfaced with high-resolution LED video screen, designed for close-up engagement and even possible interaction.
In physical terms, the sphere is seamlessly covered with a tessellated arrangement of bespoke LED panels – a high-resolution 3mm pixel in the case of the initial product. These panels, of six different sizes, are front-loading, allowing easy access for servicing or replacement as necessary.
“In addition to the pure spectacle of the PZ Sphere, to display content or provide a focal point, it also has many potential practical uses,” says Jones. “We are working to further develop interactivity, so that it can be used, for example, in shopping centres to aid navigation, as a touchpoint, a unique, 360˚ information resource.”
Williams expands, “From a technical perspective, there are two approaches to this. One is that the sphere is a very geometrically-pretty digital video display unit, to which we add optical tracking and gesture technology, which would then generatively trigger appropriate content. The seco
nd is creating the sphere with in-built touch-sensitive technology, so it recognises when someone touches it, and responds accordingly.”
The initial product has already proved its capabilities in a high-end corporate event environment. In early 2020, VISA commissioned SphereLabs to provide the PZ Sphere to form an attention-grabbing 21st century centrepiece for a VIP event in California.
With this, SphereLabs has demonstrated its ability to build and deliver purpose-built LED spheres of virtually any specification, for a broad range of applications. And thanks to no small amount of nifty design and engineering, the PZ Sphere can also be mass-produced.
“Our target audience includes production companies, agencies, record labels, producers, production houses, directors and designers,” says Williams. “In a nutshell, we will offer both sales and hire. With hire, we will manage, deliver, and execute the A to Z of technical production for anything live, be it an event, a concert, a sport half-time show, a tour, TV, music and so on. That can include not only the sphere itself, but the lighting, audio, video, staging, special effects, trucking, logistics and crew - a true end-to-end offering. Alternatively, the sphere element, with the associated resources, can be provided to another supplier as part of a production package.”
“Since the event in California, we’ve had interest from Dubai, a number of enquiries in LA and the UK, across television, music, corporate, and live events,” says Jones. “We’re starting to work on some really exciting projects.”
Of course, mapping content onto a sphere is no simple task. “One of the challenges is that usually, content is produced as a 2D canvas,” explains Williams. “So, of course when you take that 2D canvas and want to wrap it around the sphere, you have a problem because where those two spheres, the left side and the right-side join, you have a content contrast.
“Also, if you just do a simplistic map where you take that 16x9 ratio and you squish it near the poles, you get a lowering of quality so that has to be looked at very carefully and we have developed new techniques and paradigms to perfect this.
The team is using a range of media servers to feed the visuals, including systems from disguise, Hippotizer and Avolites Ai – the latter being Williams’ most used and personal favourite.
As the world emerges from lockdown, SphereLabs’ vision is to re-launch a hire business in the UK and US, as well as offering sales.
“We’re incredibly excited about the possibilities,” says Stevens. “The PZ Sphere is ripe for use on everything from cruise ships to theme parks, hotels to casinos, music tours to TV news. We can’t wait to unleash it to the world and, well - get the sphere rolling!”
Note: This article first appeared in the July 2020 issue of Light&Sound International magazine