It’s not that easy to completely surprise concertgoers with a hologram anymore. Tupac's holographic performance back in 2012—that was out of nowhere. Last night I saw an otherworldly image of Janelle Monae beam down, Star Trek-style, to perform on stage beside the real-life M.I.A.—and all of us in the audience knew exactly where holographic Monae came from: a 25-by-13-foot pane of what looked like glass sloped across the stage. At one point, M.I.A. joked that it was like performing behind a condom.
Is this the future of music? I really doubt it. It’s more like 3-D movies with those old-time red-and-blue glasses: a fun gimmick with potential left to explore, but a far technological cry from an immersive experience.
The show was part of last night’s big, buzzy promotional launch for the Audi A3. The car company hosted intimate bicoastal parties: M.I.A. performed (in person) at SIR Stage37 in Manhattan, and Janelle Monae performed (in person) at Quixote Studios in Los Angeles. Then both of them appeared in pre-recorded hologram form in each others’ shows; that footage was actually shot last month, in Atlanta. Afterward, Audi gave all attendees a mini A3 car that also functions as a 4G LTE Wi-Fi hotspot (because there’s one in the car).
Here’s my Vine from the evening:
So, what’s it like watching a hologram in person? Kind of like watching a magician who, before doing a trick, waves his arms around a lot and says, "prepare to be amazed!" You will indeed be prepared. The trouble is that, at least in a small setting such as last night’s show, all mechanics are out in the open. The glass-like cover (actually something called a Musion foil) began at the stage’s front and extended outward toward the ceiling at approximately a 45-degree angle. Before the real spectacle, M.I.A. performed a set with some real-life dancers behind the Musion foil.
When it was hologram time, all the lights in the room changed; the stage had to be far darker than it previously was so the light from the hologram wouldn't get lost. And that hologram light . . . well, you could see it beaming out of two Christie HD18k projectors above the crowd. Monae glowed, far outshining (in photons) the live M.I.A. And although Monae looked proportional next to her human counterpart—how hilarious would it be to beam her in at double size?—she wasn’t exactly three-dimensional. Instead, she was a different kind of spectacle: a 2-D slice of light standing in physical space, up at the front of a stage.
The director of this show, I imagine, had a decision to make: Do you treat the hologram like an actual person, as the producers of that Tupac hologram did, or as a self-aware spectacle? The Audi event went with the latter: In New York City, Monae's hologram shot around the stage like a video game character—dissolving into digital graphics and then reconstituting herself elsewhere. At first this seemed like a cop-out: If you’re going to make her be a hologram, go for the realism! But I came to appreciate the restriction. Nobody’s confused about whether or not we’ve been graced with Monae’s presence, so the producers might as well turn this spectacle into a human-shaped light show.
A company called Obscura Digital, which has a knack for high-profile light shows, created the hologram. I have no idea what it cost, because neither Obscura Digital nor Audi replied when I asked about that. Obscura Digital was also the company behind a Spotify event at SXSW, and a YouTube event at the Guggenheim. No doubt, they’ll find additional uses for this hologram-on-a-stage trick. It’s fun. It’s weird. It’s worth seeing. But it’s also a disappointing reminder that we don’t live in the future. We’re just here in 2014, where a hologram is actually light projected on a screen. Oh well.