Whitney Houston, Buddy Holly Return: Inside the Celebrity Hologram Trend

Thanks to hologram technology, long-gone pop stars may reappear onstage. But will fans buy it?

UPDATE: This story has been updated to reflect responses from Hologram USA and Pulse Evolution.

Alki David has seen the future, and it looks a lot like the past. David, 47, is the owner of Hologram USA, which wants to corner the market for "live" performances by 3D images of dead superstars. The company recently announced deals with the estates of Whitney Houston as well as comedians Redd Foxx and Andy Kaufman for performances and tours in 2016. Hologram USA also owns the "resurrection" rights to Patsy Cline and Buddy Holly.

In David's vision, anything is possible. Led Zeppelin could tour with John Bonham again, or a band could simultaneously rock any number of venues around the world. "But that's just the low-hanging fruit," David says. "Imagine Einstein being beamed into multiple schools at the same time, to give his take on his own theorems."

Hologram technology broke through to the masses when Tupac Shakur "performed" at Coachella in 2012, and received further momentum when a holograph of Michael Jackson "performed" a previously unreleased song at the Billboard Music Awards in 2014.

Hologram USA has been battling with a rival company, Pulse Evolution, which owns the rights to bring back Elvis and Marilyn Monroe, and recently announced a deal with the Selena estate. Hologram USA sued Pulse for violating its projection patents; the litigation has yet to be resolved. David told Rolling Stone that he considers John Textor, executive chairman of Pulse, "the world's greatest liar." Textor says that it was "fairly clear that we have already won the case," and he went out of his way to criticize Hologram USA's projection technology as "18 years old." (A spokesperson for Pulse Evolution declared Alki David's "liar" comment to be "false and defamatory." A spokesperson for Hologram USA rejected Textor's assertion that Pulse had "already won the case," noting that the "case was still in discovery with several motions pending." He also stated that Hologram USA was "constantly updating and innovating" the projection technology in dispute.)

Is there really a market for revivified celebrities? So far, hologram performances have been mostly notable for their cheesy shock value. But some music-industry insiders are open to the idea, provided audiences still have an intense connection to the performer. "Whitney Houston is potentially viable," says David Viecelli, a veteran booking agent, "but I don't think Buddy Holly is."

Ironically, in its current version, hologram technology doesn't even produce what experts consider to be genuine holograms — fully three-dimensional light-forms. The CGI required for believable photo-realistic animations of dead celebrities has progressed significantly in recent years; the problem is that projection technology used for holograms lags behind.

Most holograms we see are actually just a modern twist on an optical illusion known as "Pepper's Ghost," which dates back 150 years, and involves little more than the reflection of a 2D image through an angled piece of translucent plastic — what one expert in 3D projection, USC film professor Paul Debevec, described as "a giant piece of Saran Wrap."

Textor doesn't even like to call his company's creations holograms; he prefers "digital humans." He's planning a 90-minute Elvis performance that will be "a story of Broadway authenticity, with all of the scale of Las Vegas," but an opening date has yet to be set.

There is already plenty of evidence that computer-generated versions of humans will be increasingly common. Peter Jackson's Weta Digital "reanimated" the late Paul Walker for Furious 7; last year, Paul McCartney got himself 3D-scanned for an appearance in the video game Destiny.

For now, the main obstacle to bringing someone back to life is that a decent 3D image is needed to start with. "If I were one of these folks concerned about their legacy," says Debevec, "I would say, 'Before you get a day older, get yourself scanned in high resolution. Preserve yourself!'"