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Deceased singers on tour is just the start for holographic technology

Holograms are no longer a futuristic idea. They're here and could affect our lives in dramatic ways.

Holograms are fun to watch in concert, but they could also prove to be very useful for doctors

“In Dreams” – Roy Orbison in Concert, is a concert that sees the man himself take to the stage via hologram, accompanied by a full live orchestra. (Base Holograms)

From Ghostbusters to Star Wars, holograms are typically something we only see on the screen thanks to special effects. But holograms are now entering our lives in very real ways, and the implications could be significant.

Elisa Milner is a violinist in Calgary who plays with the Lily String Quartet. She recently performed on stage with a music legend.

Elisa Milner plays regularly with the Lily String quartet, the Red Deer Symphony and the Calgary Philharmonic. (Kandis Coslovich)

"We got to play with Roy Orbison — a hologram of Roy," said Milner.

The show is called "Roy Orbison – In Dreams" and features a young image of Orbison from a real performance standing on stage with a live orchestra. For Milner, it was a surreal experience.

"It felt actually like being with that person," said Milner. "So you got to see all of the facial expressions — exactly how he moved with the instrument."

Still, Milner says she felt a bit conflicted about the whole concept.

"It's sort of strange to be in a sacred space that you weren't there for and you didn't know that person and you never actually hear them play live or sing live."

"In Dreams" is currently touring North America and already made stops in both Calgary and Edmonton. The final Canadian show is in Toronto in November.

Holograms popping up all over

The Orbison show is just the beginning. The late songstress Amy Winehouse will get a hologram concert tour in 2019, as will Swedish pop group ABBA and celebrated Canadian pianist Glenn Gould.

And holograms aren't reserved for concert stages.

A hologram of former U.S. President Ronald Reagan now greets visitors at his presidential library in California.

The World Wildlife Fund also used a hologram this month in a campaign that featured the image of an elephant roaming the streets of London, England to draw attention to the illegal wildlife trade.

"It's a little too creepy for some people, or it's a little too uncomfortable, but I think that's something that will change very quickly," said Marcus Gordon, an adjunct professor and researcher at OCAD University. "It'll become mainstream to the point that it won't bother anyone anymore."

Real holograms vs. the impersonators

Gordon is delighted holograms are going mainstream but says it's a contentious issue in the holography community.

That's because many of the holograms we see aren't technically holograms but rather an illusion method called "pepper's ghost."

It's a trick using mirrors to make the image appear three-dimensional but when close-up, it's two-dimensional. A real hologram is three-dimensional from all angles.

But the term seems to be an accepted norm and that's OK for Gordon.

"They are holograms because they are an image and are out there in space," said Gordon. "There are some very strict technical people who are like 'well that's not technically a hologram,' but to the average consumer, it's a hologram."

The future of medical holography

Whatever you want to call it, Gordon can't wait to see where the technology goes next.

"I'm excited about these other new terms floating around like holographic cinema," he said. "Does that mean that we can all go to a movie and experience it differently? I'm excited about that transition."

Marcus Gordon is a visual artist, researcher and educator. He manages the visual analytics lab at OCAD University. (Hammadullah Syed)

The most critical transition though could be in medicine. Gordon's team is now researching the use of holograms for medical imaging.

"There hasn't been that much exploration on medical holography and what that would do is … a surgeon can actually look at a heart on a glass plate and look at a physical, measurable, accurate thing about what they need to work on."

In other words, a floating heart a doctor could see through and learn from.

But for now, we'll have to settle for fun stuff like the image of Roy Orbison performing, an experience that will remain with Milner for a long time.

"Having that experience definitely brings it more present and just revives that experience and I thought it was just a beautiful tribute and memorial to him and it was a privilege to be there."

About the Author

Jason Osler is the national 'trends' columnist for CBC Radio.

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