How Holograms Are Changing Live Performance

Fans of bygone Northern Irish stars could be in for a surprise. After Tupac Shakur, Pete McCaughan asks: who next?

As iconic rapper Tupac Shakur took to the stage at the Coachella music festival in California on Sunday night (April 15), the audience of many thousands, there to see Tupac cohorts Dr Dre and Snoop Dogg perform, practically lost their minds.

A perfectly understandable reaction. Not only has the New York born hip-hop guru been a massive influence over the genre as a whole, but he has also been dead for the past 16 years, murdered in the East/West coast rivalry that dogged the scene in the late 1990s.

Of course, Tupac didn’t really receive the Lazarus treatment. What the enthralled festival goers were presented with was in actuality an incredibly lifelike piece of visual trickery, a hologram of the late artist, created by the same a/v magicians behind the projections involved in Madonna and Gorillaz live shows. (Watch the video below: parental guidance is advised.)

Within minutes of his (its?) performance, the internet was awash with incredulous testimonials from festival-goers, baffled stoners and tearful lifelong fans who finally, in some sense, had the chance to see their deceased hero perform. Videos of the event followed shortly after, allowing tech-heads and ‘Pac fans at home to wonder at the experience.

As further details have emerged about the Tupac hologram (which cost his creators a cool $400,000 to make), it has been revealed that the construct wasn’t a hologram in the truest sense, rather a complex projection – a highly advanced version of the Pepper’s Ghost technique, which has its roots in the musical theatre of the 16th century.

While naysayers pointed out that the terminology was off, it is undeniable that the effect was and is incredible. The digitally resurrected rapper stomped and gesticulated across the stage, addressing the audience directly – 'What the f**k is up Coachella?!' – and rapping alongside fellow artist Snoop.

For all intents and purposes, this creation of smoke and mirrors seems to be doing the impossible – actually performing. It might be a magic trick, but it is a damn good one, which begs the question – what next?

The technology may not be new. Indeed, similar holograms have graced these shores before. A projection of Elvis recently appeared (performed?) at an anniversary spectacular at the Odyssey Arena in Belfast, for instance, while a rather more two-dimensional Richard Burton narrated in the stage show of War of the Worlds at the same venue.

However, with the development of holographic technologically, it feels as if not only is the way in which we enjoy live performance changing, but the notion of celebrity itself. For starters, the non-existent entity that is the holographic Tupac Shakur is rumoured to be going on tour and even has his own Twitter account, delivering digital missives from beyond the grave.

Similarly, Japanese rising star, Hatsune Miku, is one of the world’s first digitally constructed celebrities, eerily reminiscent of the synthetic construct pop star Rei Toei in William Gibson’s prophetic novel, Idoru. Whilst Miku might have preceded Holo-Pac, she has so far reached the attention of a comparatively small audience.

With the arrival of the latter, however, the idea of the constructed celebrity has shifted from the realm of nerdism and sci-fi fantasy to overnight mainstream acceptance. Thanks to this wondrous Coachella experience, the floodgates have been opened for a new breed of performer and celebrity, one which can’t be halted even by death!

With this in mind, how can we expect live musical performance to change? While it the Tupac projection was eerily life-like – the pre-recorded vocals accompanying the projection eliciting a powerful emotional reaction from the audience – the display was just that: an entirely digital construct, an experience more akin to cinema. The emotion was a one way street.

Can we expect similar reconstructions of the Beatles, for example? Would fans appreciate the chance to witness holographic performances from the likes of Kurt Cobain, Jimi Hendrix, Freddie Mercury and Ian Curtis, or would the experience be tasteless and just too painful?

The process also raises a somewhat Orwellian quandary – who has the right to decide what a projection of a deceased person will say?

Tupac's mother, Afeni Shakur Davis, gave Dr Dre her consent to go ahead with the projection. No doubt she would have expected the resulting expletive-filled performance (Tupac and Will Smith have very little in common, after all) but would she have been so forgiving if an overzealous technician had programmed the hologram to rant against Tupac's murderers, or encourage the audience to take drugs (a practice that is intrinsic in hip-hop)? I'm not so sure.

There is no reason for this technology to be restricted to musical performers either, and there is already precedent for companies and institutions digitally resurrecting the dead for a variety of purposes. For instance, Bob Monkhouse posthumously appeared in an advert in 2007, promoting awareness of prostate cancer for Male Cancer Week.

The advert was highly effective, and made with the full consent and support of Monkhouse’s family. Indeed, given such clearance from relatives of the deceased, the possibilities are endless – Einstein delivering a university lecture on the theory of relativity, Percy French painting watercolours on Newcastle promenade, Ruby Murray making an appearance at the West Belfast Festival...

All in all, whether Tupac’s posthumous performance was a life-affirming tribute or a creepy perversion of technology is up to the individual to decide, but one thing is for certain: we will see a lot more of this in the future.