The concert of the future?: How live music is beginning to harmonize with holograms

M.I.A. and a Janelle Monae hologram  (photo provided by Billboard)

M.I.A. and a Janelle Monae hologram (photo provided by Billboard)

Janelle Monae and M.I.A. pulled off quite the musical feat last week. Both of them sang two new duets, but while on opposite coasts. They did this through the technological magic of holograms.

The way it worked was while Monae sang onstage in LA, she was projected onto a stage in New York where M.I.A. was performing, and vice versa, giving each of their respective audiences a high-tech finale to their shows that evening. The event was the first hologram performance using integrated video mapping, including 3D mapping to add layered depth of field perception with animated graphic content, according Rolling Stone.

Now this is not the first concert to use holograms. In 2012, Tupac was resurrected in hologram-form to rap alongside Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg at Coachella, which really put the technology on the map as possibly music’s next big thing. Ed Ulbrich, the chief executive at the company who helped bring Tupac to life, Digital Domain, told Bloomberg Businessweek that the Tupac hologram was first to give a concert not previously rendered while he was alive:

“This is not based on archival footage. This is not him performing at some point. This is a completely origianl, exclusive performance only for Coachella and that audience.”

Not only were the festival-goers fascinated, but with over 28 million views on YouTube, the real question viewers want to know is, ‘how does it work?’

The reality is what is actually being seen is not a “hologram” at all. According to the International Business Times, Tupac was really a 2-dimensional video projected using technology based on a centuries-old theater trick called the “Pepper’s Ghost” illusion.

(Graphic provided by International Business Times

(Graphic provided by International Business Times)

AV Concepts orchestrated Tupac’s performance using Musion Systems Ltd.‘s Musion Eyeliner setup, which projected an animated version of Tupac, created by Digital Domain, onto a screen which was invisible to the audience. The “Pepper’s Ghost” illusion that Musion utilized is a technique used in plays and magic tricks, where an actor is hidden below the stage and faces a mirror. What the audience sees is the actor’s ghostly image reflected in a piece of glass suspended above the stage, much in the likeness of a hologram.

Ever since the success of the Tupac concert, using holograms in performances has become a new trend to try, not only with living artists, but the idea to resurrect other beloved performers from the past could draw big audiences and drive up ticket and record sales. For example, Tupac’s album ales rose 500 percent after his show, and downloads of the song he performed, “Hail Mary,” increased 1,500 percent, according to Mashable.

The late Michael Jackson appeared in holographic form on the Michael Jackson ONE tour by Cirque du Soleil, and some other artists are rumored to become holograms in the near future, including Elvis Presley, Jim Morrison and Jimi Hendrix. According to Billboard, the estates of a number of deceased musical acts are exploring the possibilities of virtual live performances using Digital Domain. The company is already in the early development stages of creating a “virtual” Elvis, according to CEO John Texto.

Jeff Jampol, who manages the estates of the late Jim Morrison, hopes to eventually create a multimedia experience featuring his band The Doors:

“We’re trying to get to a point where 3-D characters will walk around. Hopefully, ‘Jim Morrison’ will be able to walk right up to you, look you in the eye, sing right at you and then turn around and walk away.”

Earlier last week, Alki David, founder of the company Hologram USA, revealed plans to take a hologram of the late Amy Winehouse on tour, but due to objection from Winehouse’s father, such plans have been put on hold, according to USA Today. Despite the fallout with the Winehouse idea, David is still continuing to explore the possibilities of hologram use outside of music, he told the Hollywood Reporter:

“This is by far the most exciting business opportunity I have ever seen. Imagine running 100 meters against Usain Bolt or resurrecting Richard Pryor!”

However, not everyone shares his enthusiasm. Holograms definitely have a weird factor. When CNN introduced its hologram of a news reporter during Wolf Blitzer’s 2008 Election Night coverage, the technology was universally mocked, according to Bloomberg Businessweek. Four years later when CNN used holograms in its coverage of the 2012 Iowa Caucus results, Anderson Cooper made fun of them on air.

In Japan, something a bit more worrisome is happening involving musical holograms. Since 2007, Hitsune Miku has performed over 100,000 original songs and has over 1.8 million Facebook fans—more than any other pop star in Japan, according to Japan TodayThe fascinating (and creepy) part is that she’s not a real person. She’s a “digitally synthesized voice encapsulated in a crowd-sourced humanoid persona” appearing in live shows as a hologram.

The fact that she can literally conform to what audiences want at computerized precision is extremely worrisome for those in the music business and to the parents of the thousands of fans this hologram has worldwide. Japan Today suggests that perhaps the world is growing tired of human pop stars who only meet—but do not exceed—expectations for idols. I really hope that computerized holograms don’t replace real, human artists, and frankly, I don’t know if I would pay to see a hologram.

Something even more eerie to think about, Ulbrich expressed his ultimate hope: to create a hologram that people won’t realize is fake:

“Now that we’ve developed the tools to do this, we can start to look at other applications—advertising, commercial work; until now things like this haven’t been feasible. Nothing is real and everything is possible.”

Whether it’s multiple artists performing from different places, a resurrected artist, or an entirely computerized pop star, holograms are seeping into live music. While I definitely think the Monae and M.I.A. performance is extremely innovative and look forward to seeing more exploration in hologram-use at concerts, I just hope the hologram creators stop and think about the ethics and the impact of holograms in entertainment before they start recreating the deceased or giving middle-schoolers a new robotic idol to obsess over.