Technology is bringing the dead back to life—their images at least. In 2012, the ghost of Tupac Shakur strutted the stage at Coachella. Last year, the late Audrey Hepburn starred in a chocolate commercial. And now? Michael Jackson, the King of Pop, rose up from the underworld to perform at the 2014 Billboard Music Awards.
While the term “hologram” has been liberally thrown around to describe Tupac and MJ’s live performances—it is showbiz after all—the “holographic” part isn’t a big technological breakthrough. Rather, it’s a modern adaptation of a 19th century stage trick.
The images themselves, however, exemplify our ability to make increasingly life-like digital characters. To render these characters in exquisite detail, designers usually record a live actor—like USC’s Digital Ira, for example—but the creators of digital-MJ instead worked with thousands of Jackson’s videos in the making of his doppelgänger.
And while you might think his moves would be hardest to recreate—not so.
“Getting the hair to act and look like Michael’s hair was a feat,” Frank Patterson, the chief executive of Pulse, the company that created the show, told Ars Technica.
For now, these detailed digital reproductions are expensive to produce. MJ’s performance cost millions (more even than his famously expensive “Thriller” video in 1983). In coming years, however, as computing costs fall further, photorealistic digital characters may go beyond simply resurrecting celebrities. We may all get our own detailed digital body. And those 19th century tricks will be replaced by 21st century technology—either virtual reality, augmented reality, or true holography.