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Holograms Hit the Road

Roy Orbison would often stand nearly still on stage, offering crowds little in the way of gestures or histrionics as he crooned hits such as “Only the Lonely” and “Pretty Woman.”

Orbison died 30 years ago – plenty of time for technology and the music industry to conspire to make Orbison’s no-frills style just the thing when it comes to turning his image into a holographic rock star.

“We knew that he was an artist we could capture successfully,” said Brian Becker, chief executive of Base Hologram, which licenses the rights to Orbison’s holographic image from the late singer’s family.

The technological developments dovetail with a music industry in which revenue has shifted from recorded music sales and toward touring.

“For many artists, if they’re not on the road, they’re simply not earning,” said Jeff Pezzuti, chief executive of Eyellusion Inc. “Of course, this is a huge dilemma for the estates of artists who passed away.”

Base Hologram and Eyellusion, based in Hollywood, are joined by industry flagship outfit Hologram USA Inc., which was the first entrant into the market with its 2012 Tupac Shakur hologram performance at the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival.

Base Hologram is the newest entrant – it spun off in April from Base Entertainment Inc., a company that mainly arranges Las Vegas shows and is majority owned by Los Angeles private equity company Clarity Partners. The holographic image company was made a standalone subsidiary after the success of the Orbison tour and a similar tour featuring performances by a holographic image of deceased opera singer Maria Callas.

Orbison’s holographic image performed with live backing musicians on a 15-date European tour this spring, generating an estimated $2.4 million in ticket sales, Becker said. Base Hologram would not divulge any financial information besides its tour receipts, though Becker said the company has raised more than $10 million.

The Orbison tour – which restarts in Oakland on Oct. 1, and moves to Los Angeles’s Wiltern Theater Oct. 2 – is in some ways testing the demand for live holographic musical performances.

Early adopters

These companies have launched unprecedented holographic music tours in the last year, but the challenge now is to move from a curiosity to sustainable business model, with hurdles to clear on consumer appeal as well as the expenses for developing and transporting the images in question.

Hologram USA’s finances suggest that success in the holographic touring industry will be a struggle. But the company is looking to tap into the public market to help fund the futuristic enterprise. It filed paperwork proposing an initial public offering with the Securities and Exchange Commission in March, seeking to raise $50 million. The company posted a $3.6 million operating loss in 2016, the last full year of data disclosed in its Regulation A offering, a public offering in which accredited and unaccredited investors alike may purchase company shares.

The company racked up $4.1 million in operating expenses over the period.

Hologram USA also opened a theater last November in Hollywood, where daily shows currently feature holographic images of Billie Holiday and Jackie Wilson.

Hologram USA stated in the filing that the combination of developing holographic image technology, opening theaters and administering touring holographic images of artists such as Chief Keef is “very expensive.”

David Nussbaum, senior vice president of sales for Hologram USA, demurred on the exact cost of projecting and transporting holographic images. He did, however, tell the Business Journal transmitting a holographic image can effectively mean transmitting a stage, including bringing multiple LED panels between locales, the cost of which can range “in the tens of thousands of dollars” per tour stop.

The company also counts Coca-Cola Co. bottling heir Alki David as its owner, which defrays some of Hologram USA’s costs, Nussbaum said. He added that David encourages the company to pursue higher quality – and perhaps more expensive – images compared to competitors.

Hollywood-based Eyellusion was founded in 2015 but remained below the radar until it began working with Wendy Dio, widow of heavy metal rocker Ronnie James Dio, who passed away in 2010.

Wendy Dio licensed to Eyellusion the right to develop Ronnie James Dio’s holographic image alongside a live touring band.

A well-received performance at a show put on by trade publication Pollstar prompted Eyellusion to organize a nine-stop “Dio Returns” tour in Europe.

Clips of the Dio Returns tour are not too different from any veteran metal band’s performance. The image of Dio is a bit mechanical, but he prances and preens during guitar solos, and then belts out lyrics into a microphone.

Pezzuti said that his goal was to make the Dio tour as much like a normal metal tour as possible.

Eyellusion plans another Dio tour in the coming year, and a similar venture that features the holographic image of Frank Zappa.

Pezzuti would not discuss Eyellusion’s finances other than to note it raised $2 million in May following the tour’s completion.

Behind the curtain

Hologram USA’s initial Shakur image was, in fact, not a hologram but rather used the Pepper’s Ghost illusion technique, named for 19th century scientist John Henry Pepper.

It is the Pepper’s Ghost illusory technique, as opposed to the creation of actual holograms, that are the early industry’s standard, said Michael Bove, a research scientist of object-based media at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Creating holographic images, Bove said, means programming a video sequence with computer-generated moving images.

The image is then transmitted through a two-dimensional video projector and screen, with the use of a half-silvered mirror across the stage to give the image depth.

Software algorithms that replicate moving images have become more sophisticated in the last couple of years, said Michael Richmond, a professor at USC’s Institute for Creative Technologies, allowing holographic movements to appear more fluid and lifelike.

Becker said his company is riding the coattails of advances in augmented reality imagery happening in health care – he compared his holographic images to developments such as Tang and Teflon during the space race.

Older fans who are likely to be drawn to Orbison or Callas have not been turned off by holographic technology, said Becker, an entertainment industry veteran who worked for Clear Channel communications.

Becker said the next generation of teens who get into classic rockers such as Jimi Hendrix may clamor for concerts in which these artist’s holographic images perform.

“The technology is going to evolve and so will its application,” Becker said.

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