Hard News by Russell Brown

36

Did Holopac change everything?

I'm glad I didn't see the stories speculating that the late Tupac Shakur would make an appearance during Snoop Dogg and Dr Dre's closing set at Coachella yesterday. Not knowing made it that much more mind-blowing when Tupac's apparition did appear on stage, marked immediately by his famous tattoos, and performed a duet with Snoop.

The apparition wasn't a ghost, but a hologram; an illusion created with, on the one hand, a Victorian-era magic trick -- and on the other with Hollywood's most advanced digital imaging technology.

The projection itself was the easy part. It wasn't actually a true hologram, but an instance of Pepper's ghost, a reflection technique first presented to an audience in the 1860s, during a stage production of Charles Dickens' The Haunted Man. It's difficult to depict adequately in diagrams, but I've seen it in real life before and it works. (Indeed, I actually use a version of it every week when I read from a televsion autocue.)

The image was projected and staged by San Diego company AV Concepts, using technology licensed from the British company Musion.

The other part -- the prior creation of the amazingly lifelike 3D image by AV Concepts and the company Digital Domain --seems to have invoved some mixture of archive concert footage, wire-frame animation and CGI. There was clearly some voice-acting: the late actor and rapper died in 1996, three years before the first Coachella festival, yet he hailed the crowd: "What the fuck up, Coachella?"

Other factors contributed to the effectiveness of the illusion: it came as part of a roll-call of larger-than-life hip hop stars -- Snoop and Dre themselves, 50 Cent, the late Nate Dogg (represented by conventional still images) and, later, a somewhat jumpy Eminem. Tupac coming back from the dead had such an impact because he was so famously dead in the first place.

But most importantly, it worked because millions of us saw it. Coachella was streamed live for three days on YouTube (more of which below). The more people who simultaneously witness an illusion, the greater its impact.

But not everyone was happy with the apparition. Some people on Twitter seemed creeped out. Others, including Public Enemy kingpin Chuck D, were troubled by this recalling of the dead. Apart from anything else, Tupac couldn't have consented to his posthumous performance.

According to MTV's story, the original idea was Dre's. He worked with AV Concepts to recreate his dead friend. A spokesman for the company commented:

Smith said he wasn't allowed to talk about the creative aspects of the production — including how the hologram was able to seemingly perform the set in synch with Snoop and whether all the vocals were 'Pac's — but he did say that his company has the ability to recreate long-dead figures and visually recreate them in the studio. "You can take their likenesses and voice and ... take people that haven't done concerts before or perform music they haven't sung and digitally recreate it," he said.

It's not actually even that expensive -- in the hundreds of thousands, rather than the millions, of dollars for something like the Tupac apparition and once made, a hologram can be shown at multiple venues -- simultaneously, even. But do we really want a world of digitally disinterred stars? Bob Marley duetting with Elvis? I hope that's not where it goes.

Future applications of this kind of telepresence are more likely to resemble the stunt Deutsche Telekom  constructed with Mariah Carey in Europe last year. Carey "appeared" (apparently very convincingly) in five cities, singing 'Silent Night'. (Warning: the following video contains near-toxic levels of cheese.)

We presumably aren't very far off from a global, simultaneously staged, holographic concert. Would you pay to be in a darkened room in Auckland to experience a live gig in Los Angeles? Sooner or later, you will get the chance.

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The marvel of the reincarnated rapper has had the ironic effect of shading the remarkable effort that put three channels of live festival performance on screens all over the world.

Coachella came to your house courtesy of Akamai Technologies, the operator of the biggest content delivery network in the world. Akamai was formed by two MIT math nerds and its first big break came three months after it opened for business in 1999, when it signed a deal to deliver Apple's content, which it does to this day. It currently manages hundreds of billions of "internet interactions" every day.

Although it accounts for as much as 30% of internet traffic, the Akamai CDN is not your internet. It uses the same physical infrastructure as the public internet, but shifts data according to specialised protocols. Akamai monitors internet conditions in real time to optimise routing, but the key to the CDN -- any CDN -- is that you get your data from a server as close to you as possible. There are 95,000 Akamai servers operating in 71 countries. There's almost certainly one in your own ISP's data centre. That's where your stream was coming from.

Akamai isn't the only CDN. TVNZ, Radio New Zealand and NZ On Screen use a more modest one in the form of the national peering network managed by Citylink in Wellington. And Google operates a pervasive global network for its own purposes, YouTube in particular. So it's interesting that the Coachella project used Akamai and not the Google CDN.

The costs of the Coachella webcasts seem to have been largely covered by sponsorship from the American company State Farm Insurance. No, I haven't heard of them either. But as was the case with LCD Soundsystem's farewell show, I was thrilled to be watching a live concert in a way that I wouldn't have been watching a DVD.

I watched the streams on my computer, and also on my television. Some people simply plugged their laptops into their TVs, I beamed the stream from my iPad to my Apple TV puck, using Apple's AirPlay feature. It worked, but it could have been a lot easier. Neither the dedicated YouTube client on the iPad or the one on the Apple TV itself would even let me find the live streams. I had to use the YouTube web page inside Safari on the iPad.

I'm sure Apple will be teeing up a better solution for its forthcoming TV-like product -- and will be preparing to charge you for it.

But perhaps a high-quality telepresent live show is worth paying for -- although paid access would diminish reach and the kind of branding value that accrued to Coachella and its sponsor.

The key thing is that for so long as New Zealanders' use of the internet is subject to monthly data caps, access to these streams has to be zero-rated by ISPs. And there's a big, big problem with that in New Zealand.

As Chris Barton noted in a forthright column in the Herald, if your ISP has signed a contract with Sky to zero-rate traffic from its iSky online service, Sky's contract explicitly prohibits it from reaching a similar arrangement with any other content provider. It's not only absurd, it's actively damaging New Zealand consumers and suppressing innovation. Sky's Kirsty Way rather spectacularly admitted on Mediawatch on Sunday that Sky's reseller contracts limit competition in conventional pay TV services in New Zealand. It's actually much worse than that.

You may wish to take the opportunity to encourage your government to get its head out of its ass on this matter.

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