© 2024 Aspen Public Radio
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

What's behind the so-called 'hologram' celebrity concerts


Next, let's talk holograms. Concerts headlined by simulations of dead or absent pop stars have captured the public imagination for more than a decade. People are still talking about the late Tupac Shakur's so-called appearance at California's Coachella festival back in 2012. Now we have a return, of sorts, of Elvis Presley in a newly announced London musical experience. NPR's Chloe Veltman has been looking into the new show and has learned some surprising things about the technologies involved in it. She joins us from San Francisco. Hey, Chloe.


DETROW: I guess we have to start with our use of the word hologram.

VELTMAN: Yeah, I'm afraid to have to fact-check you, Scott, but the Tupac Shakur show, this new Elvis one that's coming up and other kinds of shows like it - ABBA Voyage in London, for example - none of these are actually holograms.

DETROW: OK, so what are they exactly, then? And why do we keep using this term?

VELTMAN: Well, an actual hologram is a 3D still image, and it's created by laser technology - for example, the security icon on your credit card. And we can blame "Star Wars," the 1977 original movie, for the word's misuse. That scene in particular where Princess Leia, who's projected by the droid R2-D2, requests assistance for the Rebel Alliance.


CARRIE FISHER: (As Princess Leia) Help me, Obi-Wan Kenobi. You're my only hope.

VELTMAN: Yeah, that help me, Obi-Wan moment was truly what made the words stick.

DETROW: So it's true that R2-D2 is not projecting Elvis here, but how does the show work, then? What is the actual technology? What do we need to know?

VELTMAN: I spoke with Andrew McGuinness, who's the founder and CEO of Layered Reality. That's the company behind this new Elvis evolution show. And he says they're using all kinds of technology, though not holograms. They feed all this stuff from the star's official archives into a computer model. We're talking hundreds of hours of video footage, photos, music, and this model effectively learns in minute detail how Elvis sings and talks and dances and walks. Here's McGuinness.

ANDREW MCGUINESS: So, for example, if a performance of Elvis was originally shot from the front, we will be able to show you a camera angle from behind that was never actually shot.

DETROW: But it's not just getting images though, right? It's about making it feel like this person is onstage.

VELTMAN: Yes, indeed. And that's where a slew of other technologies come in, including a nearly 200-year-old stage trick called Pepper's ghost.

DETROW: I did not think we would be getting to 200-year-old technology in this conversation, but here we are.

VELTMAN: Yeah, so that's a Victorian-era illusion. It was invented by a British engineer by the name of Henry Dircks in 1862, but it got its name from another scientist, John Henry Pepper, who saw a demo and ran with it. And this really upset Dircks for a long time.

DETROW: Makes sense.

VELTMAN: Yeah. So Pepper's ghost started out as a way to put a three-dimensional ghost on stage and have it interact with actors, and the trick originally involved an actor dressed as a ghost hidden under the stage. And you had this angled piece of glass at the front of the stage, which would let you see the actors on the stage and also reflect the concealed actor. People were so shocked and amazed when they saw this stunt, and since then, it's continued to be pretty successful.

DETROW: What do you think the draw is of paying money to go see Elvis or Tupac or whoever, quote-unquote, "onstage," when we all know they're not?

VELTMAN: Well, the most successful of these shows are able to cut through all the technology. Layered Reality CEO Andrew McGuiness says all of this tech must ultimately be in service of the emotional journey in order for the show to be successful.

MCGUINESS: What I dream about is for people to forget about the technology in its entirety.

VELTMAN: I spoke with Alyssa Michaud, who's an assistant professor of music at Ambrose University in Calgary, Canada, and she studies these immersive concerts with stars transformed into avatars and has attended a bunch of them, actually. And this is what she has to say about pushing past the technology.

ALYSSA MICHAUD: I think the thing that surprised me most was how powerful that sense of communal fandom was on the floor.

VELTMAN: So at their best, these shows are more about the shared experience than anything else. Michaud says audiences value that human connection.

DETROW: That's NPR's Chloe Veltman live as a real person. Thanks so much.

VELTMAN: Real pleasure, Scott.


ELVIS PRESLEY: (Singing) Got no rainbow around my shoulder, no horseshoe on my door. But I got you to hold me tight, and who could ask for more? Oh, I got lucky.

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing) I got lucky.

PRESLEY: (Singing) Yes, I got lucky...

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing) Lucky when...

PRESLEY: (Singing) ...When I found you.

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing) When I found you.

PRESLEY: (Singing) I always walk around with all my fingers crossed. I'm afraid the love I found just might get lost. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Chloe Veltman
Chloe Veltman is a correspondent on NPR's Culture Desk.