Back to life, back to virtual reality as music stars return to stage as holograms

As a Whitney Houston 3D tour is announced, the race is on to make hi-tech concerts just like the real thing

The Beatles live in the Cavern, Ziggy Stardust’s last outing at the Hammersmith Apollo, or Jimi Hendrix on the Isle of Wight: all these landmark gigs may soon await even fans who were not born when they took place. As the estate of the late Whitney Houston announced last week that the singer will be going on tour, in holographic form, the technological race to bring the most realistic live experiences to concert crowds has stepped up a gear.

Accusations of bad taste can still hang over these enterprises – and occasionally scupper them, as was seen earlier this year with the postponement of an Amy Winehouse hologram tour. But for the developers rushing to bring out new-era “live” effects, it seems that the only important issue is how good they look.

Jeff Wayne, the American-born creator of the hit album War of the Worlds in the 1970s, believes the race to stay abreast of technology and ahead of competition is crucial. When his new War of the Worlds live experience, which uses “volumatic capture” holograms as well as virtual reality and immersive theatre, launches this week, it will go up against alternative holographic shows from not just Whitney but opera diva Maria Callas, soon to be back after a holographic tour last year. The company behind these events, Base Hologram, is also taking Roy Orbison back out on the road with Buddy Holly in Britain in October, while rival Eyeillusion, founded in 2015, has just completed a series of Frank Zappa dates.

“The key thing for me is the integration of the technology with my musical score,” Wayne, 75, told the Observer. “War of the Worlds has had many iterations since I wrote it, from live shows to computer games, but whatever I have done I have tried to be involved with the latest special-effect technology. But it has to stay true to the incredible story HG Wells originally wrote. That way I think you create something of value.”

Wayne argues that the result is “absolutely a live experience”, and, as he pointed out, he has a track record here, having recreated the late Richard Burton for the first stage shows based on Wayne’s album 13 years ago. “Of course, there is always a moral question, but in our case in 2006, Sally Burton, his widow, was fully supportive,” he said.

Jeff Wayne’s War of the Worlds live experience uses holograms, virtual reality and immersive theatre.
Jeff Wayne’s War of the Worlds live experience, which uses holograms, virtual reality and immersive theatre, launches on 31 May. Photograph: PR

Whether all these special effects count as “real” holograms is hotly contested. Strictly speaking, a hologram is a 3D image caused by light beam interference, but the rise of artificial intelligence systems such as machine learning has blurred the distinctions. When Tupac Shakur, the late rapper, was resurrected at Coachella festival in California in 2012, experts argued this was actually just a projection on angled sheets of plastic, a variation of an optical trick the Victorians knew well. The 2D technique known as the “ghost illusion” or “Pepper’s ghost”was first fine tuned by the London engineer Henry Dircks and the scientist John Henry Pepper. Creative technology expert Carl Guyenette, who has worked on the Harry Potter franchise, is helping Wayne create the new experience, and suggests that we have to be careful when using term “hologram”.

“In our show we are going beyond what people have seen before with volumetric capture that involves taking 30 frames a second and then using a computer algorithm to blend them into video,” he said. “It is all still about tricking the eye, just like ‘the ghost illusion’ of the 1800s, and we use this simpler effect in part of our show in homage to the Victorians. But what we have also created is a set environment you can walk through, like a giant ‘holodeck’. The eyes of our holograms can even follow you.”

Audiences for Eyeillusion’s Bizarre World of Frank Zappa saw a similar projection, although Base claims that its technique, to be used to create An Evening with Whitney in collaboration with the late singer’s sister Pat, will be closer to a full 3D image, complete with a band, backing singers and dancers. A failed attempt at a hologram incarnation of Whitney four years ago with another company, Hologram USA, and which had some fans grimacing, shows how important it is to get the imagery right.

Big returns on concert tickets may have pushed pop and rock to the front of the hologram race, but last week the Egyptian government announced that tourists will be able to meet a moving King Tutankhamun by the end of next year, rather than just stare at his artefacts. At the same time, the French bank BNP has announced this month that some of its financial transactions will now be carried out by holographic surrogates of its team members. Trialled in London, a system called Magic Leap, developed with a firm called Mimesys, is being rolled out.

“Holograms are definitely where it is all going,” said Guyenette. “It is going to be everywhere very soon. Not just the concert hall. Within even five years people will have them at home and will be able to ‘teleport’ themselves by hologram to interact with others, just like we FaceTime now.”

For Gennaro Castaldo of the British Phonographic Institute, the music industry’s place in this virtual world is exciting. He believes that promoters will keep seeing the value in bringing artists “back to life” and this can only be good for their back catalogues. He has some reservations, though: “It has to come across as authentic. There is probably a thin line between something that looks impressive and can blow you away and something that ultimately puts off fans. Also, while we have seen a reasonably positive reaction to hologram tours and events to date, we need to wait a little longer to gauge potential for long-term growth, a point when holograms are part of the ecosystem of the ‘live music experience’.”

Meanwhile, Castaldo can envisage a future when, harnessed to human imagination, this technology might allow us to watch a young Mozart perform.

Wayne, poised once more on the eve of his War of the Worlds, has another cautionary thought: “We don’t want to let the technology get in the way of the soul. It should be just one element. And as an Orbison fan I am yet to be convinced about going to see him perform a whole show. Maybe, if they can have him interacting with an audience again. For now I am happy with his music.”


Vanessa Thorpe

The GuardianTramp

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