Installed Audio

The dawn of a new era: HOLOPLOT CEO Roman Sick talks Sphere

Last month, the long-awaited opening of ground-breaking Las Vegas venue Sphere got underway with a spectacular show from rock icons U2, setting a new benchmark for what is possible in the world of immersive entertainment. Roman Sick, CEO of HOLOPLOT, whose audio systems are installed throughout Sphere, tells Headliner the story of how his company stepped up to one of the most challenging projects in recent audio history, and why Sphere represents the dawn of a new era for AV innovation…

Rarely throughout history has the opening of a venue caught the public imagination quite like Sphere. Located in Las Vegas, images of its exterior have been a viral sensation for months, such is its distinctive form factor. For those unfamiliar – there really can’t be many – the venue, as its name suggests, is a spherical structure with an outer surface that is made up of the world’s largest high-resolution LED screen. As such, the venue has been displayed as everything from a giant pumpkin, a basketball, and the moon to a gargantuan eyeball blinking into the night sky. Likewise, the interior of Sphere can be visually transformed into virtually any conceivable aesthetic.

The deeply immersive look of the venue is mirrored equally on the audio side of things. In a move that turned heads across the entire pro audio and AV industries, relatively new Berlin-based audio technology company HOLOPLOT was awarded the contract to provide Sphere’s unique sound offering. In one of the most complex and innovative installations the market has ever seen, the Sphere system consists of approximately 1,600 permanently installed and 300 mobile HOLOPLOT X1 Matrix Array loudspeaker modules, containing a total of 167,000 individually amplified loudspeaker drivers.

All hidden behind the interior LED screen, the system uses HOLOPLOT’s patented 3D Audio-Beamforming and Wave Field Synthesis technology to transform how audio can be controlled and delivered in large-scale venues. The system is designed to produce controlled, consistent, and clear audio for audiences of up to 19,000 people, providing each audience member with a personalised listening experience. Put simply, it’s like nothing seen, or indeed, heard, before.

Crucial to the success of the Sphere project was addressing the challenging acoustical environs of the spherical venue and the huge distances as mentioned above, as well as ensuring the loudspeakers were entirely hidden from view. This is where Holoplot’s unprecedented degrees of flexibility and fidelity came to the fore. Secreting a regular line array system behind the LED would simply not work, given the transmission loss, a curved array would suffer from due to the uncontrolled nature of wave propagation and the mechanical setup of a line array.

For the X1 system, the LED is not a challenge, given its straight hanging configuration (a HOLOPLOT array does not have a curvature, synonymous with a line array system) the steering of the wavefront happens mid-air, once the audio transmission has passed through the LED. HOLOPLOT’s proprietary compensation algorithm further eliminates any audible losses.

It's not just sound reproduction anymore. This enables a level of creativity that wasn’t there before. Roman Sick, CEO, Holoplot

Traditional loudspeaker technology in large-scale venues can produce audio quality that diminishes as the distance from the speakers increases. With HOLOPLOT, sound levels and quality remain consistent from point of origin to destination - at Sphere, we’re talking about a distance of 110m from the stage to the last row of seats.

The last time Headliner spoke to HOLOPLOT CEO Roman Sick, he hailed the technology’s ability to, “enable people to achieve significantly better results wherever they want to use sound, because many of the negative effects of sound bouncing off objects, travelling in all directions and level attenuation is removed”.

He continued: “We offer sound designers, show producers and mixing engineers another layer of access to their creative content and experience creation. It’s not just sound reproduction anymore, it’s a new toolbox that allows you to paint creatively with sound output as opposed to just sound input. That completely enables a new level of creativity that simply wasn’t there before.”

So, after almost five years of planning, U2 took to the stage to give Sphere the kind of grand opening it deserved, making full use of the venue’s immersive features and HOLOPLOT’s unique capabilities. For everyone in attendance, it was a night they’ll never forget, but for Sick – a man with a vision and sense for market needs – it represented the biggest statement any pro audio newcomer could wish to send to an industry of long-established giants.

“It was mind-blowing,” Sick recalls, chatting to Headliner from his Berlin office a week after the main event. “It was a moving moment to see it all come together after so many years in the works. The Sphere experience as a whole was just next level. It was clear you were looking at a new canvas for art. And of course, we had heard our system in the venue before, so we knew what it would be like, but we hadn’t seen 19,000 people react to it. The reactions around us were just incredible.”

It's a testament to the innovative nature of the HOLOPLOT system that many were quick to comment on the quality of the sound when it would have been so easy to be blown away by the visual aspect of U2’s performance.

U2 guitarist The Edge hailed it as, “the world’s most advanced audio system”, while David Dibble, CEO, MSG Ventures, a division of Sphere Entertainment, said that HOLOPLOT technology will, “make Sphere unlike any venue, anywhere in the world, providing audio with unmatched clarity and precision to every guest, no matter where they are seated. Creating this experience required us to go far beyond existing audio technology, and in HOLOPLOT we found a partner at the forefront of innovation to help achieve our vision and truly transform what is possible with audio”.

Unsurprisingly, the response from audience members was one of awe.

It was vital that this not only worked, but that it was a next-level experience. Roman Sick, CEO, Holoplot

“People went nuts,” Sick smiles, describing the reaction in the room. “In the beginning, the whole venue looked like a solid concrete wall and then suddenly there is an opening at the top and a helicopter is seen flying over. Obviously, there isn’t an opening, but it felt so realistic, and the moment the wall started to shatter, and the visuals got going, people couldn’t believe it. I saw a lot of open mouths and big eyes. Seeing the faces and hearing that chatter of people around me was so rewarding and felt so great.

“When the show ended it was an emotional moment. That’s when it felt like the work was completed and we all hugged. The team has put so much energy into it and the reactions were great.”

HOLOPLOT and Sick’s unlikely journey with Sphere can be traced back to 2017. At this stage, HOLOPLOT was still finding its feet, with little product to its name and virtually no reputation to speak of among pro audio circles. Sick’s plans, however, were vast in scope. The company already had its core fundamental technological capabilities and system layouts but didn’t yet have a product for live entertainment. Sick set about recruiting some of the most knowledgeable professionals in the business to drive the technology to the next level.

“We had folks from MSG reaching out to us when we were still a really small company,” he says. “We hadn’t yet released a product into the market. They said they had a new project going on and thought we could be an interesting part of it. So, we met a week or two later at Prolight in Frankfurt. We demonstrated some of our fundamental capabilities and on the trade show floor signed an NDA. We then saw some of the initial plans of the building. It wasn’t a sphere initially, but it was clearly a big vision concept that would be different to anything else out there. They asked if we think we can do it and I said yes [laughs].”

“A few weeks later we were presenting it in New York and having conversations, and in 2018 the project started to take off. It was very deep water for us at that point because we were in the middle of a billion-dollar project and didn’t have the experience yet on how to navigate it; especially as we didn’t have the product ready, which was a big stress point for all the other trades involved. We had to learn and grow up extremely fast.

“For a long time, we were the plan B in the project, as MSG was also pursuing a different, conventional solution. We had to prove that we could be better than products from brands specialised in these applications with decades-long field-tested products, otherwise, what’s the point of going with Holoplot? So we continuously had to hit certain milestones to show we were ready to perform at that level and that we provided something absolutely unique. It’s an extraordinary project and a lot had to come together on our end to make it work. For any brand it would have been a massive project, so we had to prove that we were ready for it - And then we won the contract.”

For any brand it would have been a massive project. We had to prove that we were ready for it. Roman Sick, CEO, Holoplot

Despite proving time and again to MSG that HOLOPLOT was up to the task, Sick explains that there were several moments where he and his team felt that they had reached the end of the road in the years leading up to Sphere’s completion. However, as he reflects now, his team’s capacity to consistently overcome the seemingly impossible proved pivotal.

“We were supervised and investigated throughout by experts from the industry, as MSG certainly made sure their biggest project would get done properly,” he elaborates. “There were multiple stages of proving product performance at large-scale tests and product comparisons, and lots of data was gathered by us and then verified by independent experts to validate the capabilities of the product. MSG also brought in some renowned FOH engineers and artists to offer critical feedback and we had to tick all those boxes. I don’t think any sound system in development has been tested so transparently by leading experts in the market. We ticked every box two or three times, proving that we were ready.

“I always had confidence that we would deliver, but we certainly had breaking points where we encountered an issue or physics [laughs] where we thought if we don’t come up with a solution tomorrow, we might not make it. But the team found a way and continued to evolve. It was amazing to witness and see that confidence and strength build with the team. It really changed the mindset of what can be done. They bulldozered every challenge and those were the moments I was most impressed with.”

The pressure in pulling together a project of this scale would have been significant for even the most established and widely used loudspeaker manufacturers, but for a fledgling firm widely viewed as a disruptive newcomer, the implications of failure in full view of the industry’s gaze were catastrophic.

“I said to the team a couple of times that this is a binary outcome,” he states. “Success or failure, no middle ground. Everyone is looking at this project, everyone is looking at HOLOPLOT, and lots of questions are being asked about whether this can work. It was really important that this not only worked, but that it’s a next-level experience. That was the goal. It was not just a matter of sounding good it had to be a couple of levels up from that. And I’m absolutely convinced it is that.”

For now, Sick is unable to discuss the future in much detail. There’s plenty in the pipeline, but with NDAs and sign-offs pending, he remains tight-lipped. No doubt the opening of Sphere and the success it has brought will unlock many doors for HOLOPLOT in the coming months and years. As far as planting one’s flag in the sand goes, this one could hardly have been bigger.

“Sphere obviously is a very unique project of a very unique scale,” he concludes. “We have done other projects before ranging from experiential to live music and houses of worship, so the credibility of our ability to deliver great experiences within that whole spectrum is the important takeaway. In June of this year, we announced our more compact Matrix Array, X2, which makes our technology accessible for even more applications, specifically in the commercial, speech-focused sectors. There are many more avenues and news ahead of us, so stay tuned.”

'Underwater' photo: Sphere Entertainment 

Last year, Headliner joined Sick for an in-depth chat about his ambitions for Holoplot, how he came to be involved with the company, and why its technology is a game changer for the pro AV market. You can watch the interview below or read in full here