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Tupac hologram fears need a reality check

Live performances aren't going to be replaced by holographic ones any time soon.

A still from the Digital Domain-created holographic concert featuring rapper Tupac Shakur

There was a lot of freaking out last week about the hologram performance of Tupac Shakur at the Coachella Festival. As is usually the case, the situation was overblown—for several reasons.

In the first case, the hologram wasn’t really a hologram. As Ars Technica explained, it was more of a Wizard of Oz-esque smoke-and-mirrors projection known as Pepper’s Ghost, where a man behind a curtain is reflecting an image off a piece of glass. A true hologram, meanwhile, is something that is projected directly into empty space, usually with lasers.

The trick—and reaction to it—was similar to what CNN did back during the 2008 U.S. presidential election, where news anchors supposedly spoke to holograms in front of them. In reality, the news network merely used a technique known as a tomogram that fooled viewers into thinking they were seeing holograms (that story stands as the only one I ever broke that ended up on The Colbert Report).

As Hans Jürgen Kreuzer, a professor of theoretical physics at Dalhousie University and an expert on holography, explained to me at the time, full 3D life-sized holograms are still a ways off:

Holographic images are generally captured and projected using coherent light such as lasers. A laser would need to be more than six feet in diameter to capture a person’s image, which Kreuzer said is impossible because such a light would be blinding. It may soon be possible to capture and project large objects using other sources of coherent light, such as light-emitting diodes. LEDs are considerably cheaper and safer than lasers, Kreuzer said.

Nevertheless, of more concern to people was the notion that the music business will soon see an influx of dead or defunct performers. It didn’t take long for someone to draft a hilarious all-hologram lineup for Coachella 2013, with highlights including performances by Michael Jackson and Mozart.

With people’s mistrust of the music business and the entertainment industry in general at an all-time high, it’s an understandable fear. In the long run, though, it’s probably an unrealistic one.

Firstly, there are the legal concerns. As one lawyer told me, a person’s rights to his or her likeness usually end upon their death. However, if you’re rich and/or a celebrity, your family and/or estate can fight over that likeness, resulting in a giant mess. The case of Jimi Hendrix is a great example. While the greed of music labels and concert promoters often knows no bounds, in many cases the legal troubles just won’t be worth it.

The more practical obstacle, however, is the question of whether people want to see such performances. Sure, there’s the novelty aspect, which might be neat to see once or twice, but is it something a large number of people will pay to see? Tupac was rolled out as a surprise, but if the rumours are true and a full tour is planned, how many people will actually go?

There is the argument that tons of people go to see the likes of Britney Spears, who doesn’t even sing during her live performances. There’s also the fact that so many “singers” aren’t actually singing and are instead relying on software to process their voices into something approaching listenability. Fakeness, evidently, does not discourage people from buying tickets to a show.

But society seems to have drawn a line, whether we consciously know it or not. In Britney’s case, she may not be singing during her live performances, but at least she is, you know, “live,” as in a-live. By and large, watching the product of someone we know to be dead activates our “creepy defence” by verging into a form of the uncanny valley, where we’re freaked out not by small, weird differences to real life, but by the actual absence of real life. In other words, there’s only so much fakeness we can enjoy before we realize the jig is up.

That’s why the entertainment industry has posthumously exploited performers only sparingly. One of the best examples was Natalie Cole’s “duet” in 1991 with her deceased father Nat King Cole. The song, Unforgettable, was a big hit and won a host of Grammy awards, including Song of the Year, yet it didn’t lead to a rash of copycats.

On the other hand, Tupac may actually be one of the few artists perfectly suited for a posthumous holographic career. Of his 11 albums, seven were released after his death in 1996.