Inside the nerve centre bringing Expo 2020's majestic Al Wasl dome to life

Exclusive: The immersive dome never sleeps - and has quickly become a highlight of the world's fair

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Thunderous music and striking visuals draw thousands of people daily to a gigantic, translucent dome that is the centrepiece of Expo 2020 Dubai.

Intended initially as a shaded garden space, it took meticulous planning to transform Al Wasl, the world’s largest immersive dome, into a unique stage for top performers to shine.

The 360-degree dome never sleeps with rehearsals that continue well after the world's fair shuts its gates.

By day and night, engineers seated inside a darkened control room pull together high-tech, synchronised sequences that vary daily.

We were looking not just for a 360° solution but something that was immersive enough if you have Beyoncé singing here – that quality of sound
Tareq Ghosheh, Expo's chief events and entertainment officer

Tareq Ghosheh, Dubai Expo 2020 chief events and entertainment officer, told The National about creating an experience to excite and energise visitors.

'Making lasting memories'

“We are in the business of making memories. This what we wanted to create in people’s hearts, something that lasts,” he said.

“One of the beautiful things is the sound because if you close your eyes you can feel the picture and movement happening around you.

“This is the biggest immersive sound and projection system in the world.”

The ambition was to capture the spirit of Dubai.

“It is a space that can embrace you, so grand, powerful and majestic but also gentle,” Mr Ghosheh said.

“Our teams rehearse in the morning, others at night and the technical staff sets up after we close doors.

“So Al Wasl is literally living 24 hours.”

Al Wasl will become 'bigger and better'

Behind the scenes of Al Wasl plaza - the beating heart of Expo 2020 Dubai

Behind the scenes of Al Wasl plaza - the beating heart of Expo 2020 Dubai

People lie down and stretch out on the curved stone seats built into the sunken walls to submerge themselves in the visuals.

During the day, visitors hear the sound of water gushing, horses galloping and children playing and often look around to check the source.

In the evening, when the call to prayer rings out, hundreds of white doves appear to perch on the steel trellis.

At night, the audience whistles and cheers as waves surge to the top of the 67-metre-tall structure and slow-moving whales fill up the sand-coloured screens.

“We are only at the start, this is the tip of the iceberg of what this installation will be able to achieve,” said William Ainley, vice president technical for Expo events and entertainment.

“Al Wasl is going to get bigger and better especially with the immersive systems.

“Every time I come out here, it blows me away. From a technological perspective, this is one of a kind, there is nothing like this in the world.

“Projecting to a dome has been done before but never to this scale, this resolution. The pixels we are working with, the video we have is unique.”

Connecting Earth to the sky

Even as the dome was being constructed, plans were altered to upscale it from an 'urban garden’ to take centre stage as a main venue.

Ducting and electricity points were redesigned, projectors tripled in number to 252 and rows of speakers were lifted for concert-quality sound.

“The level of projections as was planned was good enough for a garden. To be vivid and clear for broadcast, we had to raise the number of projectors. This was happening while Al Wasl was being finalised,” Mr Ghosheh said.

“So everything, the ducts, containments, electricity, power capacity, internet, fibre-optics had to be revised.

“We wanted the sound to be perfect so wherever people are seated they could live the story.

Al Wasl Plaza wows with spectacular light show at Expo 2020 Dubai

Al Wasl Plaza wows with spectacular light show at Expo 2020 Dubai

“We were looking not just for a 360° solution but something that was immersive enough if you have Beyoncé singing here – that quality of sound.”

Projectors were placed inside large pods that resemble aircraft jet engines with a glass front. The air-conditioned pods are checked daily particularly in the severe summer heat by maintenance crews on an overhead walkway.

Because it would be uncomfortable for spectators to keep their head tilted watching the canvas, equipment was built and variations added to performances.

A suspended structure or truss strapped with sound and light was constructed to focus on stage performers.

“You need to connect the Earth to the sky and this happens with framing,” Mr Ghosheh said.

“In a dome there are no poles to hang things on so we had to create a truss, like a circle, that is suspended.

“We needed to maintain audience engagement because if they are not part of it, they will get lost.”

To boost the theatrical effect, layers of lighting were fitted with about 1,500 lights on the trellis, 30,000 LED lights across the garden, strobes and telescopic beams.

How the dome comes alive at night

A quiet, darkened central control room with massive glass windows is the staging zone that fires up the content.

It is staffed 24x7 with engineers and software experts drawn from across the world who pull together the special effects.

After the Expo shuts for the night, co-ordinators rehearse the next day’s sequence.

“It’s the best view in the house,” said Mr Ainley of the team’s commanding view.

A combination of live and timed sequences is programmed to play through the audio and light systems.

“We have to tie together lighting, projection and audio and it’s all done with a time code so there is a specific sequence for all our synchronisation.

“There is always something new and when you see the reaction of the crowds it shows how special it is.”

The crew also run through shows created for children and content supplied by countries who book the stage for celebrations.

AI drones, butterflies and waterfalls

The planners created separate experiences for select guests who attended Expo's opening night and the millions watching on television.

Drones diving into an enormous globe, a waterfall and butterflies fluttering in the central dome could only be seen by TV audiences.

“This was one of the biggest installations of augmented reality for a live event in the world,” Mr Ghosheh said.

“The cameras would pass through the scene and add these elements.

“It was six cameras connected to filters of augmented reality in real-time renderings as we were shooting the event.”

The crew worked with a broadcast director to plan every AI frame.

“So when performers were dancing on the ground, the people on television saw drones flying into Al Wasl, they saw butterflies, white doves and towards the end the greenery that tumbled down and a waterfall,” he said.

Theatrical tricks created the effect of a rotating globe that was lifted with winches installed around the dome.

“It was supported with LED technology so for the naked eye the globe looked like it was rotating but it was only the content that was moving,” he said.

"Sometimes you need to play some tricks in order to keep audience attention.

“And inside, no one saw how the artists connected the globe in the dark as with the proper lighting, the cables disappear.”

Designers built a basement and lift under the revolving stage, used by performers such as Ellie Goulding to emerge in the central area.

The lift is strong enough to carry a car and continues to delight crowds during performances.

“You can see the surprise in children’s eyes when suddenly performers appear or disappear on stage,” he said.

When to catch the shows

In October, watch Harmony Under Water as the dome is submerged and octopus, tortoises and whales swim past at night.

Tribute is paid to famous Emirati poet Ousha bint Khalifa Al Suwaidi, as the Moon speaks through the dreams of a young girl.

Several new shows are under development to be released, including plans for the UAE’s Golden Jubilee celebrations.

A detailed schedule of events is available on the Expo 2020 Dubai website.

The bleacher seats will soon be removed to make way for wider seating.

“There are some tricks we are going to add where people will feel even more of a connection,” Mr Ghosheh said.

“There are so many things we have not released yet. We are keeping them in a box but they will soon come out.”

Updated: October 21, 2021, 6:30 AM