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Refik Anadol, AI + Art in the Public Sphere

Data Aesthetics in the Land of Spectacle

Image Credit: Sphere Entertainment. Machine Hallucinations: Sphere, 2023, Refik Anadol Studio.

Machine Hallucinations: Sphere by media artist Refik Anadol has been featured at The Sphere in Las Vegas since September 1, 2023. Comprising three chapters from Refik’s Machine Hallucinations series, initially developed 7-years ago during his Google AI residency, these data-driven visualizations may, quite literally, be the most prominent demonstration of creative works developed with machine learning, with AI, in the public sphere, to-date.


Image Credit: Sphere Entertainment. Machine Hallucinations: Sphere, 2023, Refik Anadol Studio.

This series integrates publicly accessible images into machine-learning models, resulting in iterations of vibrant abstractions. The first chapter, Space, pulls approximately 1.1 million publicly accessible images captured by satellites and spacecraft, including those from the International Space Station and NASA's Hubble telescope. The second chapter, Nature, incorporates around 400 million publicly obtained images of plants and animals from global national parks. The third and final chapter Sphere: Winds of Las Vegas, pulls datasets on wind speeds, precipitation, and air pressure collected from wind sensors in Las Vegas. In real-time, the generative translation of data into abstracted patterns, colors, and forms creates an ephemeral, immersive experience. 

Anadol, who describes data as pigment and AI as his brush, told Los Angeles Times, “[It’s] this incredible architectural form in public urban space and this incredible art form. We’re used to canvas and sculpture and paintings and video, but this time, the whole building is a canvas—and not one with corners. It’s challenging our perceptions. It’s a really powerful statement and experiment reinterpreting the limits of our understanding of what is a canvas.”

The new entertainment venue, aptly referred to as The Sphere, is characterized by its 366-foot-tall, globe-shaped exterior adorned with nearly 580,000 square feet of fully programmable LED screens. The architectural studio Populous conceived and designed this $2.3 billion project, which took about seven years to complete. Sphere Entertainment describes the venue as “a next-generation entertainment medium powered by cutting-edge technologies to redefine the future of entertainment.”

The exterior, known as the Exosphere, boasts a fully programmable LED surface, making it the largest screen of its kind globally. This colossal LED paneling not only contributes to the venue's futuristic aesthetic but also serves as a dynamic canvas for a variety of visual experiences. As a venue for films, concerts, sporting events, and video game competitions, The Sphere's interior features the highest-resolution LED screen in the world, enveloping the audience in an immersive visual spectacle.

The audio system utilizes laser beam-like technology to direct sound precisely to individual areas, allowing different language options without overlap. Additionally, The Sphere offers a multi-sensory experience, incorporating environmental conditions like wind, heat, humidity, and scents. The advanced haptics technology further enhances the immersive experience by making viewers feel physical sensations corresponding to on-screen events, such as the sensation of driving over a bumpy pothole. In essence, The Sphere in Las Vegas epitomizes the convergence of technology and entertainment, pushing the boundaries of what is possible in the world of immersive experiences.

This new venue will undoubtedly advance immersive audience experiences within entertainment industries and be a major draw for visitors to Sin City. What may be surprising or, at the very least, a bit less expected is to see such high-concept art in a city known for cheap thrills and spectacle. Nonetheless, according to Guy Barnett, senior vice president, brand strategy and creative development for Sphere Entertainment, “[...] we will forever change the way artwork and commerce co-exist.”