• Type: Whitepaper
  • Topics: Live Events; Video;
  • Date: March 2015

By Dan Daley, Special to AVIXA

In show business, being dead has often been a viable career option. Just ask Elvis, Jim Morrison or Jimi Hendrix, all of whom still sell more records than many indie bands. In 2012, holographic technology upped the ante for dearly departed music stars when audiences at that year’s Coachella Valley Music & Arts Festival in Indio, Calif., were stunned by the reunion on stage of deceased rapper Tupac Shakur with the very alive Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg.

The phenomenon of bringing celebrities to new life in the form of holographic avatars had some remarkable precursors, such as Paula Abdul dancing with the departed Gene Kelly, and Natalie Cole paired with her late father Nat King Cole on the “Unforgettable” music video. But those were cartoons compared to the jolt Tupac’s resurrection elicited, both at Coachella, as well in the culture and technology pages. The former saw in it the future, or were creeped out or both. The latter mostly reveled in picking it apart like a reverse-engineered iPhone, pointing out that at its core it was a slick updating of a theatrical gag that’s been around since President Lincoln went to see “Our American Cousin.”

The hologram owes its basic mechanics to a Victorian-era illusion called Pepper’s Ghost, invented by an English scientist and introduced to theaters in the 1860s. In that case, the “ghost” was an actor located forward of and below the stage floor. The actor was gradually more brightly illuminated while the stage area was progressively darkened, which caused the image of the actor to become visible to the audience in a piece of glass — transparent yet reflective — located on stage and angled so that the audience could see the reflection but also still see the stage set behind it, making the reflected actor’s image look as if it were onstage.

Pulling off such an illusion in front of more sophisticated, modern audiences is considerably harder than it was to impress consumers who were still slackjawed over the telegraph.

Tupac’s “return” at Coachella used technology developed by London-based Musion. Specifically, the company’s Eyeliner 3D holographic projection system, which can capture and project live action as well as prerecorded images, so that live actors can be projected on stage from almost anywhere and interact with those in the venue (given an appropriate two-way communications infrastructure). Such holographic interactivity was used by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to give a speech at 128 places simultaneously as he was campaigning for the country’s 2014 elections.

Eyeliner utilizes a high-definition video camera to capture action and a projector that projects that action onto a reflective screen on the floor, angled slightly up in front of the stage where the image is meant to appear. That reflection bounces up to a semi-transparent Mylar screen stretched across the stage, which is where the audience experiences the image.

The content that became “Tupac” was visual effects company Digital Domain Media Group’s interpretation of the concept: A body double’s movements were motion-captured to HD video and the rapper’s features, including his tattoos, were digitally applied to that recording, which was then manipulated to synch with Shakur’s archived voice recordings. (The company performed the same illusion at the 2013 Rock the Bells music festival with virtual performances by the late rappers Eazy-E and Ol’ Dirty Bastard.)

Easy as that, right? The technology exists to make holograms a part of a unique live events experience. So where are all the holograms?

Tough Crowd

Nick Smith, President of AV Concepts, the San Diego company that executed the Tupac event at Coachella, marvels at how often it’s still cited as representing the cutting edge of live-event production. What confounds him, though, is how little demand for the effect there’s been since, at least at the very high end of event production.

“There’s still a lot of interest in it — the Tupac thing is constantly brought up,” Smith says. But he adds that although the underlying technical concepts are fairly simple, making the illusion work perfectly requires a highly controlled environment, especially when it comes to audience viewing angles, stage height, distance from stage-to-seating and other physical and environmental considerations.

“There is a lot to manage, and that can be daunting,” he acknowledges. At Coachella, he says they had to go so far as to check the phase of the moon the night of the show, to know exactly what the level of illumination around the stage would be. What no one predicted was the effect of the massive rolling waves of low-frequency thump that typically comes with a hip-hop show. “When the Mylar is stretched out across the stage it’s like a snare drum,” he says. “The bass can really rattle it.”

Then there are the costs involved in pulling off such an experience.  Most of the costs, Smith says go toward the Musion patent licenses and whatever IP licenses are necessary for content. He estimates that large-scale deployments of the system could cost between $50,000 and $100,000 for large-scale applications. (Smith told MTV in an interview that same year that the Tupac event cost between $100,000 and $400,000.)

In 2014, AC Concepts participated in another large-scale deployment —  a Nike product roll-out in which prerecorded holograms of NBA stars Russell Westbrook, Chris Paul, Blake Griffin and Carmelo Anthony gave event attendees insights on the sport and posed for selfies. (Read that sentence again: The holograms posed for selfies.) In an important sense, this unique application of holographic technology one-upped “Tupac” because it involved something that gives the illusion its biggest emotional impact: It allowed real-time interaction between the living and the virtual.

Smith says he’s been able to scale down the illusion for small deployments, at events such as trade shows and retail pop-ups. “We’ll use a smaller projector and a sheet of glass or acrylic instead of Mylar,” he says.

Other Illusionists

Others have been trying to market versions of the holographic effect. Bay Area startup Bleen Inc. has launched a crowdfunding campaign to build personal holographic systems, which it says will produce projected images over 8 feet high that do not require any special screens, lenses or glasses to view. They do, however, require specialized content production. (Notably, Bleen’s promotional materials reference the Tupac illusion.) Valencia, Calif.-based Technifex markets its ability to project Pepper’s Ghost and other holographic effects.

Others in pro AV are also hopeful that Pepper’s Ghost can gain more traction in the digital age. While acknowledging that the content has to be exceptional to pass muster with media-savvy audiences, Larry Paul, Senior Director of Technology at projector manufacturer Christie, which makes a line of holographic projectors, says he’s surprised that the effect isn’t used more often, considering the impression that the Tupac event made.

“I think the world is ready to go to another level of Pepper’s Ghost,” he says. “The technology is proven to work and the projectors and displays are there.”

Christie TillicumChristie’s holographic systems have been used for various projects. Recently, Tempest Technologies deployed a pair of Christie HD10K-M Series 3-chip DLP projectors with built-in AutoStack and Twist technologies to create holograms of Native American storytellers at Tillicum Village’s Long House Theater in Washington (pictured). At the time the effect launched, Tempest AV consultant Bart Black said, “Tillicum Village really wanted to get that ‘wow’ factor in there, rather than just have people performing.”

Being able to get the right content for a holographic display may hold back potential users, Smith believes. (Not to mention a general uneasiness over whether bringing back the dearly departed is appropriate for some situations.) Nonetheless, he says his company has done about a dozen events a year since the Coachella show and has more in development. The company built a demonstration theater to market its solutions. He can’t say who, but Smith explains that future clients come from the corporate and retail sectors, which have been receptive to the effect in the past. AV Concepts has also been promoting holographic projection for medical and military applications.

Smith remains optimistic that holographic projection will become more a day-to-day tool in the event-production kit, rather than the novelty it’s been so far.

“Projection mapping was virtually unheard of until just a few years ago, even though the technology to accomplish it — the graphics, the projectors, the lenses — had been around for a long time,” he says. “Why didn’t it take off sooner? Well, that’s the same thing with holographic projection. There’s still plenty of runway left in front of us.”