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Holograms: The Invasion Of The Body Snatchers

Pros and cons of the latest special FX fad

What could be the consequences of dead artists appearing as holograms for the live music industry? Is it a revolution or a simple technological innovation? What about the ethics? Here are some things to take into consideration.

For a whole generation (or even two or three), the idea of the hologram is inevitably linked to films, especially to that scene in “Star Wars” in which RD2D projects Princess Leia's cry for help on the wall of the Skywalkers' shack. That virtual, 3D representation of a human being (a volumetric beam of light that would be used for communication all over the Empire) undoubtedly made a huge impression in pop culture, and has been a bit of a Holy Grail for the special effects industry ever since. What had been possible on screen should also be taken to real life, something that was possible in theory, because there's no law in physics saying otherwise, but it would take highly sophisticated technology. Further back in time, if we were to dive into American science fiction literature from the 40s onwards, we would likely find numerous references to holographic representations, not to mention teleportation fantasies. All this makes the concept of the hologram utterly fascinating.

On 21st April, 2012, while half the world was sitting in front of a screen watching the two main Spanish football teams meet, something special was about to take place in California: on the main stage at the Coachella festival, during a concert/swindle by Dr. Dre (the man who earns the most making the smallest effort), 2Pac Shakur appeared, as a hologram, or something looking like one. A realistic representation, with limited but natural movements, rhyming, moving around a certain part of the stage with his shirt off, and interacting with Snoop Dogg. 2Pac, murdered in Las Vegas in September 1996, was reborn only miles from where he left this earth, and it seemed like a circle was closing, a circle that had started in 20th century sci-fi. In 2Pac's particular case, it was rather ironic, as he wasn't agnostic and rejected the idea of life after death, but it was a triumph for a part of applied physics that, sooner or later, would have to show the world what it's capable of.

Holography, as a scientific discipline, is relatively young. Dennis Gabor, the inventor of the method to reconstruct three-dimensional images with light beams (laser beams, to be exact), won the Nobel Prize for physics in 1971. The industry around this technique has been growing exponentially over the decades, until the production costs for the creation of virtual bodies were affordable enough to be used in the worlds of art and small industries. There have been holograms exposed in museums, contemporary art fairs and avant-garde installation (in 1972, Salvador Dalí claimed he was the first ever artist to use it, even though his claim proved to be wrong), and the idea has obviously played a decisive role in the development of 3D cinema.

2Pac was never a hologram

The 2Pac hologram at Coachella raises a lot of questions, and its nature generates both optimism and rejection. Apart from the technical consideration that, according to the experts, it wasn't really a hologram but a special effect created by using certain holographic mechanisms (technically it consists of an optical illusion known as “Pepper's ghost”, used mainly in magic tricks, and taken to the musical stage for the first time in 2006, when Gorillaz played at the Grammys featuring a light effigy of Madonna), the vivid, moving projection of a dead person - until now considered impossible - is giving way to reflection and debate about ethics, its artistic possibilities and commercial exploitation.

Though it sounds like a platitude, it has to be said that the use of holographic figures during a concert is not a revolution in music, as many technologically optimistic people sustain, but a technological innovation; maybe not even an innovation, but a practical (and tardy) application of a device that is now good and affordable enough to use industrially, no longer strictly as an experiment. We say 'tardy' because there have been other 'holograms' before 2Pac's: on the catwalks, during conferences by Al Gore and Richard Branson, or the aforementioned Grammys gig by Gorillaz, not to mention other craftsman-made Pepper's ghosts (after all, the origins of this technique trace back to the 16th century, at the dawn of modern optics). With those precedents, the price Dre apparently paid for 2Pac's projection (400,000 dollars for five minutes of concert, or freak-show, depending on how you look at it) seems obscene for an optical illusion executed with state of the art equipment. Because it was never a real hologram, so there's a bit of pig and poke in there as well.

"The kind of event, where everything is a marvellous trick is a goldmine; but there's also the question of ethics to take into consideration."

However, that kind of money needs to be earned back, even with a bit of profit, and after the initial shock of seeing 2Pace resurrected, Dr. Dre has already suggested the hologram (let's just call it a hologram, even though it isn't) could go on tour in the coming months. If that's going to be the case, we'll have a whole new phenomenon on our hands in the entertainment industry: 100% virtual concerts, without human presence on stage (not necessarily, anyway), a new twist to the concept of visuals (screens, fireworks, all-enveloping light show). In itself, the idea is attractive. It won't be much different from going to the movies, putting on your 3D glasses and enjoying something like Spielberg's mesmerising “The Adventures Of Tintin”. The kind of event, where everything is a marvellous trick (if we forget about the idea of live music, where the vocals and instruments should at least be performed by real humans - this would be more like a circus, or a multimedia event) is a goldmine; but there's also the question of ethics to take into consideration.

Do not play with the dead

To resurrect 2Pac is shocking, and maybe even immoral. The deceased couldn't have given permission, but what about the family? If there's going to be a 2Pac tour and money is going to be made, who will get the profits? Is it the same as exploiting the copyrights of a dead writer? What would we Spanish think if someone were to 'resurrect', say, Federico García Lorca as a hologram and do a poetry reading tour with it? After 2Pac, other birds of prey have been quick to announce their holographic comebacks: The Jackson 5, who could never convince brother Michael to join them on a reunion tour, are now claiming he'll be back as a hologram dancing with four old crocks. TLC, the trio who helped lay the foundations of modern R&B in the mid-90s and had to close up shop after the sad passing of Lisa ‘Left Eye’ Lopes in 2002, are now starting a tour with Lisa back from the grave. This is only the beginning of a disgusting series of announcements of this kind.

Technology isn't good or bad, it depends on who's using it for what (see the idea of nuclear power: you can use it to generate electricity or to wipe cities off the map). In the case of the false holograms, the first reaction has been that of vultures; at least from a series of people who, seeing a golden opportunity to make some quick cash before anyone else does, are going to exploit the resource and then swiftly return to their caves. But there's another, much more interesting path for showbiz as well (with a connection to another recent motive from sci-fi literature to boot): if holography and Pepper's ghost is used for the creation of new experiences. Obviously, it's tempting to imagine an Elvis Presley world tour (it wouldn't be that different from the tour when Natalie Cole sang with her deceased father, Nat King Cole, on screen and her on stage), or to resurrect Amy Winehouse with a holographic glass of cognac in her hand. But it would be much more interesting to come up with a live show, video game and 3D audio-visual mix, where music would be made from scratch.

Cyberpunk fantasies

There is a failed precedent that could temper the enthusiasm. When Square Pictures started the production of the first film adaptation of the “Final Fantasy” game saga (subtitled “The Spirits Within”, it ended up being an epic fail; it cost 137 million dollars and only made 85, dragging the production company down with it) their ambition was to also create the first virtual movie star in history. Aki Ross, the main character of the film, was designed not only for “Final Fantasy”, but also to appear in other animated films, in different roles, like a real actress, doing interviews and appearing on magazine covers. Aki Ross, however, only got one other role before disappearing into oblivion - in the short film “Final Flight of the Osiris”. It was the first of “Animatrix”, and the bridge between the first part of the “Matrix” saga and “The Matrix Reloaded” (it's no coincidence that film revolutionised modern special effects). The Aki Ross case shows that, at least in 2001, the public's reluctance towards the virtual world – as opposed to something analogue - was a fact. But the world has changed dramatically in ten years, and internet is now seen as something almost more real than real life. The question now is: how would people react to the first tailor-made, holographic rap, pop, or metal star?

That's a possibility cyberpunk has always found tempting. In his 1995 novel “Idoru”, William Gibson conceived the character Rei Toei: an immaterial secret agent, pure artificial intelligence, going undercover in the human world as a pop star ('idoru' is the Japanese word, taken from the English 'idol', for the young Lolitas of shopping centre J-pop). It opened the door to the concept of something being completely virtual in mass pop, something we're getting into more and more. On a Britney Spears, for instance, there's almost nothing 'real' from the artist: it's music created by a team of ghost writers and ultra-technical producers and the voice is post-produced - parting from an increasingly blurry vocal trace, modified in impossible harmonic scales. Even the photos are photo-shopped more than a Playboy centrefold. It could be a Rei Toei album in Gibson's novels. Cyberpunk has always dreamed intensely about hyper-virtual reality, the dissolution of the real world and its submission to the hyper-real world of internet and data flow (at the end of “Ghost In The Shell”, Mamoru Oshii's cult anime flick, Motoko Kusanagi abandons her body and merges with the net, becoming pure thought and information, a binary metamorphosis that also happens in another, later anime film, “Serial Experiments Lain”). Maybe that vision of the future is slowly coming together with the present.

The 2Pac of Coachella 2012 - a false hologram, a brilliant optical trick - might be the spark that starts a carrion fire - a kind of necrophilia 2.0, the real invasion of the body snatchers – that we'll all feel ashamed of in a few years. It has nothing to do with music and everything to do with mass entertainment. But it's also a symptom of the entertainment industry taking some giant steps to come up with something new. If that something is anything like what Gibson envisioned, yours truly is okay with it. But if this is going to end up in a freak show with the ghost of Kurt Cobain playing on stage: thanks, but no thanks.

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