How Sphere Has Triggered Global Interest In Making Big Structures Media Facades, With SACO Technologies CEO Jonathan Labbee

April 24, 2024 by Dave Haynes

When I first spoke with Jonathan Labbee about the grand-scale media facades and displays being produced by SACO Technologies, the Sphere in Las Vegas was just yet another over-the-top thing rising up from the desert sands.

Two years on, and a few months after the giant LED ball was first switched on, the Sphere is probably the most discussed and photographed digital display on the planet.

So I was very happy that Labbee was willing to carve out some time to talk about some of the technical details behind the display side of that project, and more broadly what it has meant for the Montreal company, and for the concept of buildings as media facades and visual attractions.

In this podcast, we get into some of the technical challenges and innovations associated with putting together both the attention-getting outside exosphere of the building, but also the mind-wobbling 9mm pitch curved display inside. We also talk about the larger business, and the opportunities and challenges of turning big structures into experiential digital displays.

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Jon, thanks for joining me. It’s been a couple of years, but a lot has gone on with your company, and obviously, the big thing is its involvement in the Las Vegas Sphere. 

I know we can’t spend all of our time talking about that, nor do I want to, but I would imagine your company’s work on that has kind of rocked the industry 

Jonathan Labbee: It has, and thanks for having me back, Dave. The sphere has been an incredible journey for us. I think two years ago when we last spoke, we were just about to start on our part of the construction, and we successfully delivered that project, which is, I think there were a lot of people and projects that were in the waiting to see if something of this magnitude could be pulled off successfully and now that it has, it has awoken a new level of giant projects around the world. I’m gonna say mostly in the Middle East at this moment in time.

Why is that? Is it just about money, or is it also about things like zoning controls and available space?

Jonathan Labbee: Well, I mean, obviously, money and budget are always a concern, but I think when you get past the level of installing a giant television on the side of a building and where the building itself is a media medium, but the infrastructure to support that is so significant in your construction budget, I think this is one of the key aspects for these developers and these architects to understand if it could successfully be done. 

Now from a zoning perspective, I think that a project like the Sphere is quite revealing in the sense of how much control you have over brightness and the type of and quality of the content and secures the knowledge that a responsible owner can display tasteful content in the environment that it’s designed to be in.

I know that there was a proposal to do a similar project in the east end of London and that doesn’t seem to be going ahead, at least at the moment, and it struck me as one of the barriers to it was simply that you’re putting up a very bright object within reasonably close proximity to residential and that’s a challenge.

Jonathan Labbee: Yeah, it is. I’m not a politician by any means, but I do think there’s some politics there and also maybe some fear of new technology that could potentially be disruptive if used irresponsibly. Normally, people who spend this amount of money on a venue tend to have a very secure plan to fit within their environment.

So what was done for the Sphere was custom. Could you relate what was done on the outside and then on the inside? The inside is particularly interesting to me because your company’s pedigree is not so much on fine-pitch large displays other than for touring acts, which are not as fine a pitch.

Jonathan Labbee: Well, yeah, so it’s actually pretty interesting that this seems to be our persona; the reality is that most of our development is done on fine-pitch products. We just happen to have been doing quite a bit of low-res or wide-pitch products because we’ve been doing so many iconic buildings, it seems to be what we’re known for. 

But if you take, for example, a lot of the touring acts or some of the video screens that we did for Orlando airport, for example, those are 2 millimeters pixel pitch and all these types of things. 

So if we go back to the Sphere, the exterior of the sphere, referred to as the exosphere, is made up of these pucks, I would say, that have 48 LEDs, and each one of these pucks is a pixel that is controllable for the client, and that’s what gives you that beautiful imagery on the building, and it also has an aesthetic that the architects wanted and the client wanted, where it allows you to see through and see the base building through the exosphere. So, the performance criteria for the exterior was one thing, whereas the performance criteria for the interior were completely different. It needed to be audio transparent because if you go to the Sphere, there are absolutely no speakers or any kind of disruption, and on the media plane, everything is behind the screen. So it gives you a very pure environment. 

The screen itself is nominal nine millimeters, but it is 16K x 16 K resolution, and because of the distance, everything just works when you’re inside of that environment, you feel like you’re wherever the artist or content creator decides that you’re going to be. So, if you’re on Mars or another part of the planet, you feel like you’re there. 

For the exosphere, because this had not really ever been done or certainly not done very often, was there an engineering thought process about how we make this work? Will it work? What are the sight lines, all that sort of stuff?

Jonathan Labbee: Oh, yes. And as much as I want to take a lot of credit for this, it was definitely a collective effort. First of all, we’re dealing with a very sophisticated client that has a lot of knowledge and capabilities, the same goes for the architects and all the other trades that were involved.

So we had the opportunity to work with an expanded group of people that had a lot of knowledge and capability to visualize these types of things, and we have done mock up over mock up. So it’s not just, oh, let’s think about it and build it. It was: 

Let’s think about it. Let’s prototype it. Let’s prove it. Let’s adapt to it. Let’s modify it, and eventually through the process of iteration, you end up with something that is functional for that particular mission. 

So, what was the big moment like? I think it was July of last year, or maybe a bit earlier when you first turned it on. Were their fingers crossed, or was it a big aha? 

Jonathan Labbee: Well, I can tell you when the client first turned on that exosphere, I think it was like a huge wow moment for everybody, including ourselves, it was spectacular, and then when we had the chance of going to the opening for you to for the interior, which was, the end of September, that, I gotta tell you, was pretty emotional. I don’t think that any one of us could have imagined what it would look like in its finished format. 

Yeah, because you’ve done some grand scale indoor stuff for touring acts stadiums, and so on, which are pretty big ass screens, but nothing along these lines, right? 

Jonathan Labbee: Nope, there is, actually, nothing on earth and in our industry that exists at this level of magnitude. And again, we’ve been working on this for 5 years, and we see it in sections, and we see the whole master plan. We see all this stuff on computer screens or in real life as mock-ups. But when you see the finished scale on the interior, it is mind-boggling. 

How do you service something like that? Is this just like man lifts or lord knows what? 

Jonathan Labbee: Well, the venue is obviously designed with service capability. I mean, at the end of the day, how do you eat an elephant? It is basically one bite at a time, and it’s pretty much what this is. I mean, it’s a lot of the same type of stuff. So everything is broken down into sections and if you have a problem, you need to go to service. If you want to go look at something, you have access to that section in a particular fashion, and then you have access to the screen, and you can do whatever you need to do.

I’m curious as well about some of the meat potato stuff, like video servers. 

How do you develop something that can control that many LED modules and make it all addressable? When you went to your technical partners on that, was it a big, “Oh, boy, how do we do that?” Or was it, ” Okay, we know how we could do that?” 

Jonathan Labbee: Yeah, I think, I think it was more of a “yeah, we know how we can do that because our video processors are scalable in nature.” They technically don’t have a limit, but then again, it’s not just our stuff that needs to function. It’s everything up and down the chain.

So, we control everything from the video processor to the video screen. But everything upstream from us also has to function, and Here Against Here Studios, or MSG, design and create their very own control room with all of the workflow to function. So, from beginning to end, they have full control over the quality of the signal.

What about the creative? 

I assume that producing this stuff requires a certain set of skills and experience, which is very helpful. Is it hard to do, or do you kind of get instructions on what to do, and then you make it happen? 

Jonathan Labbee: Yeah, my understanding is that the Sphere studios put together some templating and also offers its own production services to clients to make producing content much easier. So people are not just thrown into the project. They’re helped all along the way. 

One of the things that impressed me about the project is the type of content that’s showing up on there that I think I, like millions of other people never would have even thought of.

Have you been surprised by it? 

Jonathan Labbee: Yeah. I have to say those guys have done an incredible job of coming up with some very interesting and creative ways of making that sphere look amazing, and you really never get tired of looking at it. I mean it’s populating my Instagram feed and probably everybody else’s. It’s just incredible what they’re able to put on there, and I think that they’ve been very clever in getting collaborations from different types of artists and collaborators. 

When I was through Las Vegas late last year, I made a point of walking all the way over to the Sphere. I wanted to see what it looked like up close, and I have an industry friend who did the same, and it’s this weird sensation of, now I see how this works and what the technology looks like up close, but it was almost like, that’s something you shouldn’t do. You really need to see this from a distance. 

Jonathan Labbee: Yeah, and it was designed to be seen from a distance, but I think that it’s very interesting. I can’t say that this was planned in this way, but I mean, obviously, we’re looking for performance criteria. So we designed around that, and a certain aesthetic, and probably the architects have thought about this, but as you approach the building and you start seeing how things are put together, there’s a sense of revelation that you get when you approach the building, and it becomes even more personable to you. I thought that was pretty interesting because I had a similar experience when I went there for the first time.

So what has this spawned? Do you have commercial property developers coming to you, resort operators? Who seems most inspired by this? 

Jonathan Labbee: Well, yeah, I would say that the Sphere certainly awoke a new level of clients and types of projects. We normally work with the architects, so the architects who represent the owners and the property developers are coming to us with more and more intricate and large projects, which is super fun because not only do we develop technology, but we’ve designed an entire workflow, and toolset in order to design and efficiently manufacture and install and run these types of projects.

Yes, I mean, we’re getting large resorts in the Middle East right now, which is in a big flux of change, especially in Saudi Arabia. So there are a lot of these giga projects or mega projects spawning all over the place, and we’re getting a lot of inquiries on that side, which is great. 

Are they serious? 

Sometimes, you see these magic mega projects in other jurisdictions, and there’s a lot of PR noise around it, but nothing ever happens. But I suspect because some of these are funded directly by the Saudi government through PIF or whatever, they’re going to happen.

Jonathan Labbee: Yeah, I think in the past, it was maybe a bit more true that there were kind of these big dreams, and then they would just never materialize, but I think things have changed a lot in the region, where projects are actually getting built. There seems to be a big sense of change in the entire region.

Dubai and Abu Dhabi, and that part of the world, continue to be very strong for us as well. So we’re lucky that we’re already out there and have delivered successful anchor projects. 

What is involved in doing these? Is this like a three or five-year project?

Jonathan Labbee: I would say that normally this would have been a three year project. Obviously the pandemic happened, which no one had anticipated, which drove all sorts of additional complexities in time. But I would say that a project like this, I believe originally had like a three year type of timeframe, and any mega project would have roughly the same type of timeframe. 

One of the things that’s interesting to me is, as we were discussing before, that maybe people don’t know the full scope of what your company does. I didn’t realize you had off-the-shelf products that you manufacture and can order.

I kind of assumed it was all custom, but there, there is stuff that you can just buy, right? 

Jonathan Labbee: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, we have a whole suite of products that you can either utilize the way that they are or customize with brackets and carriers and these types of things. It is actually the bulk of our business, although we publicize more of the iconic type of projects simply because people like to hear about those. 

Still, we do several hundred projects a year that are obviously much smaller and sometimes not as much talked about.

Are those fixed projects or do they, or are they more about shipping out material that’s going to be used by touring acts? 

Jonathan Labbee: These are fixed projects. Although we do a lot of touring, we just launched Morgan Wallen last week with our new A5 series, which is an amazing product and show, but touring for us is, it’s really great, obviously for recognition, but it’s ALSO a fantastic place for us to try out new ideas. So it is really like an R&D lab, and that’s why we continue to put so much effort into rental and touring. 

We get to try out new ideas with clients who are willing to take chances and want to be the first, and then once you have something great, you refine it, and you make it more robust for permanent installation because, in a permanent installation, the criteria are quite different. You don’t want to go up 1000 feet to change the light bulb, for example, right? That becomes very expensive. When I was on a tour, it lasted for a few hours. You can take it down. You could address things if you need to so there’s a method to our madness, I would say.

Is there linkage at all between, because you’re a Montreal company, there’s at least a couple of Montreal creative shops that have also done a lot of work with touring acts as well. Do those come together or are they kind of separate tracks and once in a while you bump into each other? 

Jonathan Labbee: They are separate tracks, and oftentimes, we bump into each other. So, for example, when we did Orlando airport, the content designer for that was Gentilhomme who we know very well. We obviously have Moment Factory and a bunch of other creatives out here. So there’s a really nice hub here, and we’re all friends, by the way, so we all have lunch together and these types of things, because it’s fun to talk about whatever we’re working on.

Going back to Sphere, the product that you developed particularly for the exosphere, is that something that you can turn around and productize, like turn into its own product that could, could be used, or is it really unique to that building? 

Jonathan Labbee: It is unique to the building and has certain features specifically designed around its geometry. So, I think that those additional features would probably be lost if we were attempting to use it somewhere else, but in any case, it’s not something that we would want to do with it. It has not only technological criteria but also aesthetic criteria that are unique to the Sphere.

But the concept, though, of these pucks or discs of some kind that have LEDs embedded in them, I believe what you did at Burj Khalifa was kind of like sticks or something more. 

Jonathan Labbee: Yeah, exactly. Burj Khalifa, because it was a linear approach, used a product that we call V-Stick that we customized for that particular building. 

But if you take L.A. Stadium, for example, or SoFi Stadium, that has a puck format on the roof. There are, I think, about 35,000 of them, and you get a video image on the roof when you’re flying above from LAX. 

So anytime you’ve got curvature, a puck is probably going to be a lot easier to manage than a stick because you’d have to custom bend each of them, right?

Jonathan Labbee: Yes, but it also depends on what the client is trying to achieve. So, if you take SoFi Stadium, they wanted to have an even spacing of the pixels, whereas Burj Khalifa had very different criteria. They were 30,000 pixels tall but only 72 pixels wide because we had to install them in between the windows. So, on the architectural things, each project kind of reveals itself in its architecture in terms of what product or what you should be designing to achieve their media. 

When you work with architectural firms, do you have to invest some time at the front end with the architects, particularly on the engineering side of things, as opposed to the big vision side of things for them to understand what’s possible and what’s physics-defying? 

Jonathan Labbee: I would say yes in the beginning, but we work with all of the major architect firms like Foster and Populous and those types, and the more and more projects that we do together, the more and more that we understand each other’s criteria.

Now, on our side, what we did to make sure that we could have ease in speaking with the architects, we have an entire architectural division within SACO. So we have a Spanish office that has seven architects, BIM integrators, computational programmers, and so on, which mimics the architects’ workflow. So, not only do we work with them to show them what’s possible, but we also work with them to design the technology within the architecture. Then, we are able to produce the drawings at their level, which they then incorporate into their drawing sets. 

I’m guessing, I don’t know the architecture business at all, but I’m guessing maybe a decade ago, there were one or two projects where people were thinking about architectural lighting of some kind, and it was this novel concept, and I’m wondering now if it’s almost like a default concept for all flashy new buildings.

Jonathan Labbee: Well, it is. If you want your building to stand out, you have to have some level of technology on it or some level of color or something because if not, you just fade into the background. 

I guess I have come back to the whole idea of zoning that, I see skylines in China; it’s just like the whole skyline; every building is lit up, and they’re all animated, and they’re all doing things, and I’m thinking, well, you can do that in China. I’m not sure you could do that in Long Island City in New York to face the Manhattan skyline with buildings doing that. Do you have to kind of factor that in?

Jonathan Labbee: Oh, absolutely. I mean, actually, obviously anything governmental kind of tends to move at a slower pace. So we have built it into our workflow, and in the architect’s workflow, let’s say, the sensibility of making some tools and visualizations for the city zoning people and a perfect example of that would be F.C. Cincinnati, which we did with Populous. So F.C. Cincinnati is a soccer club, an MLS team, and the entire architecture of the building is like these fins that are kind of slanted and it gives like some level of static movement to the building, and our job was to animate those fins at night to give the nighttime identity.

So we did an entire lighting study, and we have special filters built into the content so that, or into the content player, so that anywhere where it’s facing residences, the light levels never exceed a certain amount. 

We produced all of that, all of those studies with the architects, to present to the city on behalf of the client.

What’s the thinking around what level of, for lack of a more exotic description, razzle-dazzle is appropriate? 

I’m thinking in Las Vegas, the Sphere makes perfect sense. That’s on-brand for Las Vegas. I’m not sure that would make as much sense in, I don’t know, San Francisco or Minneapolis or whatever and I have a lot of affection for much more subtle architectural lighting. 

Jonathan Labbee: Yeah. But you have to think of the fact that Sphere is the extreme, right? It has a completely adaptive skin. So the skin, when there’s no media on it, obviously, it’s this dark surface, but the media at that point is designed for the environment. So, in Las Vegas, it’s appropriate to have this very kind of flashy razzle-dazzle stuff. 

But if you were doing something in San Francisco, the UK, or something like this, where you need it to be more subtle, the content would move maybe at a different speed and be produced in a different manner. Maybe it’ll be more focused on lighting effects rather than full crazy commercials and that kind of thing. So, having adaptive skin is actually a really good thing in any environment because you can tailor it and adapt it as you move along.

I’m assuming that it would be pretty difficult for more conventional LED display companies like the I don’t need to rattle off the names, but the major manufacturers who put billboards up in Times Square and on the sides of stadiums, but it’s not part of the architecture. It attaches to the architecture. It would be difficult for them to get into this because you’ve got a massive head start. 

Jonathan Labbee: Yeah, I think it would be very difficult. I mean, also, there’s a mindset that goes along with it. We don’t choose the path of least resistance. I think the people that work here would get bored. But at the same time, you have to evolve over years, tool sets in order to accomplish these very difficult geometries because everything needs to support it from the back as well. You have to be able to do proper wiring diagrams and power layouts, and all this because it affects the entire architecture of that building, so we’re doing it by choice, let’s put it this way!

I saw a post last week on LinkedIn about a company that’s made a sphere, I don’t know, 25 feet tall or something like that as a product. how do you react to those things? 

Jonathan Labbee: Yeah, I guess I’ll go with the analogy of trying to copy something is flattery. Again, it’s not the first time that these types of things happened. Obviously, it’s not on the same scale as the Sphere, but I mean, year after year, we see people trying to copy what we’ve done.

Yeah, that can’t be easy. I’m also curious about media facades and the use of LED within glass or applied to glass at some point. Are you being asked about doing that? 

Jonathan Labbee: Yeah, so actually, many years ago, we actually designed some technology and actually have a patent for LEDs within glass, and we actually tried it out, and in concept, it sounds like a great idea, but in practice, it’s not that great of an idea, as we found out, and what I mean by that is that there’s a couple things: 

First of all, if you need to replace something, you now need to pull the glass off of the building, which could affect the tenants inside. If it’s a hotel, it’s a hotel, you know what I mean? If it’s an office building, it’s an office building. You’re not replacing the glass. But the other thing that it did is that it could have potentially put us in competition with some of our clients, which are the curtain wall manufacturers, and we work with all of them. So if we were to come up with our own glass product, and we were to try to go sell it, we’re essentially either aligning ourselves with only one of them, or we’re competing against all of them. So we had decided against that, but the serviceability of it was the bigger problem.

Where are you at now in terms of headcount, where you’re located, and everything else? 

Jonathan Labbee: Yeah. So we’re in Montreal still. We’re just across the street from our old facility, which we were there for 35 years, and we’re now in this beautiful 218,000-square-foot facility that we got into obviously with Sphere and other projects in mind, and we’re 120 people strong, and when we’re full project involved like with Sphere, we grew to about 380. 

So we scale up, and we scale down depending on the projects, and we have arrangements with different companies for that and that’s where we are now.

Is it hard to be that elastic in terms of your workforce, given the challenges of hiring?

Jonathan Labbee: Well, the pandemic certainly tested us. I mean, we’ve never had issues with it before, but the pandemic made it a bit more difficult. The way that we design our manufacturing and all of our testing—I mean, we have a lot of electronic aids and stuff like that—we, the core people that we have here, can be split up to become team leads.

So, when we hire people, it’s for the lower-skill positions. So it’s easier. You have a bigger pool to choose from, and then after that, we scale back down when we don’t need to do that anymore, and then our core workforce takes on all the responsibility. 

So these could be logistics people who are just packing things up and so on?

Jonathan Labbee: Correct. Exactly. 

I assume you’re NDA’d up the wazoo on a lot of projects, but are there ones that you can talk about that will be released in the next year or so? 

Jonathan Labbee: So I can’t really talk about them, but I can tell you that we’re building a beautiful project in Spain after having an office there for, I don’t know how many years, finally, we get to do a project in Spain and that’s very exciting. 

What part of Spain?

Jonathan Labbee: In Valencia. 

Oh, nice.

Jonathan Labbee: So right near the sea and stuff like that. So I can’t say what it is yet, but it’s going to be beautiful, and as I mentioned, we literally just delivered Morgan Wallen last week and that’s pretty exciting as well.

What has the past couple of years meant for the company in terms of business? Has it just rocketed or is it just seen like a nice, healthy bump? 

Jonathan Labbee: Well, I’m going to say it’s going to be a controlled rocket because we, again, dealing with the pandemic is one thing and then supply chain and all that kind of stuff, but the other thing that we needed to be very disciplined about is to not take on too much work as to not affect the delivery of the Sphere, and that was on purpose, and we had spoken with our customers and our architects and stuff like that, and we were very selective in the projects that we took on during the big delivery of the Sphere.

Thankfully, though, the pandemic did push a bunch of the projects into the future. So now those products are coming back to us, and we have a lot of bandwidth, and we’re filling that up pretty fast. 

I suspect as well that the simple fact that you’ve delivered this and it’s got the global attention that it has certainly made your architecture partners and other potential customers very comfy that, yeah, you can do this!

Jonathan Labbee: Oh, yes, absolutely. You know, and at the same time, we’re not just a one-trick pony. We did deliver a very large project at Orlando airport at the same time and Delta the airfield at JFK and a bunch of other projects, the Rolling Stones and Lady Gaga and all those.

So we continued doing everything kind of caused an undertow, but Sphere was a really big focus, and now that we’ve finished delivering Sphere, we’re working on many other very exciting projects. 

I’m sure there are lots of day-to-day headaches in terms of being the CEO of a technology company, but it sounds like you get some pretty fun road trips with all these touring acts and big venues.

Jonathan Labbee: Yes, and you get to meet very interesting people and like-minded people, and you get to see behind the scenes, but look, it’s a lot of work. There’s no doubt about it. I mean, every day we’re trying to do something different and do something new.

So you’re always kind of in that development mode, but when you see the results, and then you see the teams that you’re building and the culture that you’re building within the company, it makes you proud and makes it fun to be here. 

Absolutely. Congratulations on the product or the project and on everything else that’s going on with you!

Jonathan Labbee: Well, thank you. Appreciate it.

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