Per last week's rumors, Michael Jackson last night became the latest holo-resurrection in pop music's crescendoing digital-zombie apocalypse. As a highlight of the otherwise pointless Billboard Music Awards, the King of Pop (now five years in the grave) appeared as a simulated hologram and performed "Slave to the Rhythm," an elaborate promotion of his new posthumous album out now, "Xscape."
Good luck, however, finding video of the spectacle this morning. Sony's lawyers seem to have pulled an all-nighter slapping down YouTube links — the metaphor of opening the performance with ominous music and a riot-line of dancers dressed as crypto-corporate soldiers was not lost here — except for the official MJ account, where the performance is shown in full here ...
This is not the same hologram simulation of MJ currently appearing in the "One" Cirque du Soleil show in Las Vegas, though that show was the target of a similar lawsuit filed by a billionaire claiming rights to this particular virtual-performance technology. Last week, a judge dismissed the suit that would have thwarted the Billboard spectacle.
The Vegas hologram, too, is much more engaging because it — like the Tupac hologram, like Hatsune Miku, and so many others now — mingles on stage with live humans. The art, as the Cirque's simulation designer told me, happens when there are both atoms and bits on stage, acting and reacting with each other. The Billboard presentation, produced by Pulse Evolution and Tricycle Logic, appears to be largely a projected Michael and a bunch of also-projected dancers. So we're basically just watching a video, with the whole proscenium as screen. Not wholly fulfilling.
MJ in your living room?
This kind of entertainment largely remains the purview of giant, moneyed corporations — but, per usual, the trend already points to ever-cheaper, more accessible tech. One of the most exciting elements of my own virtual performance research thus far was examining the work and interviewing members of Synthesized Reality Productions, a grassroots group of Vocaloid fans who produce their own digitally projected virtual concerts, both for online video and ultimately live at cons.
In addition, just last week the MIT Media Lab reported progress on "a design for a glasses-free, multiperspective, 3-D video screen, which they hope could provide a cheaper, more practical alternative to holographic video." In other words, at least the projection of this kind of 3-D-ish presentation could be within reach of your sofa soon.
What MIT is talking about is still holographic TV — so the entertainment is still trapped inside a screen, no tabletop Princess Leia message quite yet — but it's an extension of the kind of research I recently surveyed.
Here are MIT's Camera Culture guys talking through the tech details ...
I'm THOMAS CONNER, communication researcher and culture journalist.