Over 3,000 people filed into the 5,000-capacity Motorpoint Arena in Cardiff, Wales, on April 8 to see Roy Orbison perform. That the rock legend has been dead for almost 20 years was of little importance: They were gathered to see a hologram of the star croon his hits.
Ronnie James Dio and Frank Zappa will also both be “touring” soon, while some living stars have started reaching out to hologram companies, researching whether they might be able to “perform” while they’re actually in the studio, or dealing with medical issues, or just really far behind on their Netflix queue.
For years, hologram tours have promised to be the next big thing, with augmented and virtual-reality technologies developing at a rapid clip. (The 2Pac hologram that appeared onstage at the Coachella festival in 2012 seems practically stone age, compared to newer, more realistic models.) But there’s still one problem: No matter how great the tech becomes, fans know the star is, well, dead — typically eliciting feelings of eeriness and revulsion in many observers, say industry experts.
Still, Ahmet Zappa, who worked with Eyellusion — a company that just raised $2 million — to create a hologram of father Frank for the upcoming tour, says he isn’t trying to replicate a concert. “We have elements of Frank onstage, of course, but we can do all these other things and anthropomorphize the music in a whole new way,” he explains.
Brian Becker, founder of BASE Holograms and creator of the Orbison version, says such shows are “more in line with modern versions of Shakespeare, or films based on the lives of dead people.”
Data is scarce on the market for hologram concerts, mostly one-off events to date. In Japan, one of the biggest pop stars in the country, Hatsune Miku, is a hologram, but an anime-adjacent teenage character not based on a real person.
Opinion on the future of hologram shows is split. Initially bullish on the idea, American Idol creator Simon Fuller became the largest shareholder of PulseEvolution, the company behind the 2Pac and Michael Jackson holograms, in 2016, but has since parted ways with it. The estate of the late Prince would never consider a hologram tour, says a spokesman, though a video of the artist singing “I Would Die 4 U” was projected onto a large silk sheet behind Justin Timberlake during the Super Bowl halftime show in February. And Joel Weinshanker, principal of Elvis Presley Enterprises and manager of Graceland Holdings, says, “Holograms are horrible. A hologram will never be as good as a great film of the artist. I can’t imagine someone watching a hologram for 90 minutes. They can’t mimic the movements of an artist, and it looks like a sideshow.”
But John Branca and John McClain, co-executors of the Jackson estate, noted in a joint email that the superstar’s performance at the Billboard Music Awards in 2014 was broadcaster ABC’s “most-watched moment in 13 years, so we know there is a huge demand. And audiences are thrilled when a virtual Michael materializes during ‘Man in the Mirror’ at our Las Vegas show, Michael Jackson ONE, by Cirque du Soleil. But these are moments within a larger context. One day, we may determine a way to make a longer, sustained performance work — but until we know the creative is perfect for Michael’s fans, we won’t do it.”
One-off hologram appearances could see wider adoption soon. Two years ago, Matchbox 20 frontman Rob Thomas partnered with VNTANA to create a hologram of himself that performed karaoke with fans who bought a VIP package for his tour. Over 1,000 concertgoers entered a booth with Thomas’ hologram, which acknowledged right away that the singer-songwriter wasn’t really there.
As for the Orbison show, some critics praised its technical finesse but knocked a setlist that was padded with lesser-known tracks and instrumentals; British newspaper The Telegraph declared it “a live hologram show that’s about as dead as can be.” But VNTANA founder Ashley Crowder still sees plenty of potential, asking, “How cool would it be if you could dance with a hologram of Rihanna?”
This article originally appeared in the May 19 issue of Billboard.