“The hologram business is bigger than porn. It’s going to be as big as the movie market.”
Photo: Bobby Doherty/New York Magazine
Alkiviades David sips some tea and shakes his head. “One could argue,” he says, “that pornography is the be-all and end-all for holography.” Dressed in ripped blue jeans and a crisp multicolored pin-striped button-down shirt open to his chest, the 47-year-old Greek billionaire — one of the heirs of the Leventis-David Group, which made a vast fortune bottling Coca-Cola — is sitting 35 stories above Columbus Circle in the lounge of the Mandarin Oriental hotel. It’s a drizzly July day, and he’s mulling the future of entertainment. “Unfortunately,” David says, “to holographically display real people having sex in real time requires installation of half a million dollars of proper equipment. Strip-club owners are just not going to pony that up.” David’s words fall nonchalantly from his tongue in a posh transatlantic accent — he was schooled at the prestigious Stowe School in England and the prestigious-er Institut Le Rosey in Switzerland — and the effect is as if conversation were a leisure activity with which he’s become slightly bored. “Fortunately, the hologram business is bigger than porn. It’s going to be as big as the movie market.” He gently places his teacup in its saucer. “There is no impediment to that happening. None.”
David says he has so far invested $20 million toward making this a reality, with more money yet to be spent. He has a company, Hologram USA, which he started in 2014 after buying the patent for the technology that created the Tupac Shakur hologram that performed at Coachella in 2012, and he’s aggressively sued for patent infringement against Fox and Cirque du Soleil. David intends to put on shows featuring digital likenesses of Ray Charles, Richard Pryor, Jim Morrison, Liberace, Mariah Carey, and other dead or otherwise past-their-prime performers. And he has, he believes, foolproof plans to get these apparitions to materialize for paying audiences. “I’ve got deals in place,” David says, leaning forward in his chair. “I’m in with the Apollo in Harlem, the Mohegan Sun in Connecticut, the Andy Williams Moon River Theatre in Branson, the Saban Theatre in Los Angeles, and the hologram comedy club at the National Comedy Center in upstate New York is opening next year. I’ll pay to retrofit venues and theaters across the country with the technology to deliver holographic shows. My digital holdings — social media and websites — have over 70 million monthly uniques. The pipeline is being built.” He leans back. “It’s just a matter of time.”
And attention. On July 25, the controversial rapper Chief Keef — who is signed to David’s MondoTunes music-distribution service (David is keen on both rap and a diversified business portfolio) — was attempting to circumvent a performance ban in his hometown of Chicago by appearing, via hologram beamed in from Los Angeles, just over the Illinois state border in Indiana, but his grainy, zombified image vanished after a few minutes. The authorities had pulled the plug. Still, the event garnered far more coverage than Keef’s last single and thus counts as a win. “There’s a lot of noise out there,” David says. “Controversy helps you stand out. You watch: When the election is over, everyone will want to do business with Donald Trump. The same technique works for me. If people go into a business meeting or come to write about me thinking I’m a lunatic, you’ll feel some empathy for me when you actually meet me. I have no advantage if I’m a neutral quantity.”
Then: Advantage, Alki David. He’s not the only entrepreneur in the holographic celebrity space, but he is the loudest. He’s also the only one to have, in June, released a documentary about his life, called, arguably accurately, Lord of the Freaks, in which he can be seen mud wrestling, berating his employees, and pranking young men by making them believe they’re going to score with model types, only to be confronted by angry cuckolds waving guns. “This is what’s funny to me,” he says. “I’m not interested in the straight way of doing things.” He notes that his sons and wife, Jennifer Stano, a former bikini model, don’t seem to mind his behavior. As shown in Freaks, David’s streaming-video sites, BattleCam and FilmOn, which amount to a YouTube without shame, feature footage of a man firing a gun into his own scrotum as well as, more distressingly, a Kato Kaelin talk show. In 2010, he offered a million dollars to the first person to streak naked within eyesight and earshot of President Obama, and in 2011 he broadcast an assisted suicide later revealed to be fake. He’s expecting a favorable FCC ruling this year that will allow his company to stream live television.
But blow away David’s smoke, cast aside his mirrors, and focus on the holograms: celebrities, dead or alive, performing at the press of a button. He has the distribution, the technology, the licensing deals, and the money to make a feasible go of it. (As well as imminent plans to put on a Lil Wayne multimedia show and another Chief Keef holo-gig.) What he doesn’t have, though, are holograms.
“We’ll have true hologram shows,” says Jim Steinmeyer, “when I get a jet pack and fly to the moon.”
Steinmeyer, 56, is a respected designer of magical illusions and theatrical special effects. Working with David Copperfield, he made the Statue of Liberty disappear. On Broadway’s Beauty and the Beast, he engineered the Beast’s climactic transformation into a man. He’s tetchy on the subject of holograms. “A hologram is a three-dimensional image formed using laser light,” he says, “and I’m not aware of anyone in the entertainment industry using those.”
Hologram is a term derived from the Greek words for whole and recorded, and it means, roughly, a three-dimensional image formed by bending and focusing light. They do exist — invented by accident in the late ’40s by the British-Hungarian scientist Dennis Gabor — but they don’t make for easy entertainment. You probably have a couple of holograms in your wallet. Those little glowing stickers on your credit card? Those are crappy holograms. Tupac at Coachella, Michael Jackson at the 2014 Billboard Music Awards, Jimmy Kimmel at the 2014 Country Music Association Awards telecast, the ghouls floating around the Haunted Mansion ride at Disney World, Chief Keef in Indiana? “Those aren’t holograms!” says Steinmeyer. “They’re just a fancy version of a 153-year-old trick.”
That trick and most of what we know as holograms (and what we think of when we think of glowing 3-D projections) are variations on a technique called Pepper’s Ghost. Invented by a Victorian-era engineer named Henry Dircks — and subsequently developed and made famous by a scientist-showman named John Henry Pepper — Pepper’s Ghost involves using angled glass to project a transparent and seemingly three-dimensional reflection of an object that’s hidden out of sight of the audience. For a brief period, Pepper’s Ghost was a rage in England. Queen Victoria was given a command performance, and professional skeptics used Pepper’s Ghost to show how mediums claiming to be able to summon the dead were charlatans.
Audiences no longer need a skeptic to prove to them that raising the dead isn’t possible, but they still want to see it done. So David and his competitors, like Pulse Evolution, which has deals in place to show digital likenesses of Michael Jackson, Marilyn Monroe, and Elvis Presley (still-living celebrities have been slower than their dead counterparts to jump on the hologram bandwagon) and whose executive chairman, John Textor, had a series of legal battles with David over licensing, are here to help. “Think about the response to Tupac at Coachella,” says Textor. “When he came out and said, ‘What the fuck is up, Coachella?,’ he made a connection that was incredible. There’s no other way for fans of an artist like him to make that connection.” And for the estates of deceased celebrities, holograms represent a new way to make money beyond slapping more pictures on more tchotchkes. “This technology is giving you the opportunity to extend your brand, whether you’re late or living,” Textor says. “You can perform in multiple places at once. You can perform against your own digital likeness. With an animated human, you can go to Coca-Cola and say, ‘You can have Elvis with a guitar on the beach’ in your ad — some new scenario.”
Right now, though, it’s not easy to go see a high-quality hologram, and even harder to see one that dances or sings or does any of the other things that fleshly celebrities do. There’s a static Bob Marley hologram at the MIT Museum, and there were some excellent holographic representations of Fabergé eggs in St. Petersburg, Russia, last year. In New York this summer, there’s a small exhibition of holographic art on Governors Island. Currently, mass-entertainment versions of holograms are hamstrung. “The problem is scale and motion,” says scientist V. Michael Bove, the head of the MIT Media Lab’s Object-Based Media Group and an expert in holography. “You can make a small static hologram pretty easily. To make a big one that moves, you need powerful color lasers, you need 3-D modeling, and you need to be able to be taking 24 to 30 photos of it per second. And what are you reflecting the images off of? It’s impractical and expensive, and we’re still a ways off from making that truly accessible.”
So, until that happens, we’re using optical illusions. Hologram USA’s version of Pepper’s Ghost employs stretched translucent foil as a reflective surface rather than glass, allowing more flexibility across a stage. A motion-captured performance is then projected through that foil. In the case of dead celebrities, a digital rendering of an artist’s head is superimposed on an impersonator’s body. “It’s what we understand holograms to be in this day and age,” says David. “It’s a two-dimensional image that looks 3-D,” says David. “It’s better, in fact. The very first motorcar: That’s what the early Pepper’s Ghost technology was like. What we’re doing is a Ferrari. One is completely undesirable in today’s world, the other is very desirable.”
The deeper question, to my mind, is not whether one version of what we call a hologram is more desirable than another; the question is where the limits of that desire lie. Ultimately, what is a hologram good for? “Seeing a glowing Tupac,” says Steinmeyer, “does that make the performance more vital? A good show is a good show. The hardware you’re using to achieve it doesn’t change that fact. If I said to most producers, ‘We’re going to put up a Mylar screen and project an image of Michael Jackson that’s sort of dimly lit and have an impersonator dancing offstage,’ you’d just go, ‘Stop, stop, stop.’ Why is that better than a movie about Michael Jackson’s life?”
It’s entirely possible, even probable, that, at some point, David’s technology will be fully able to create and project a celebrity digital likeness that’s indistinguishable from the real thing, one that moves fluidly and organically and delivers unerringly consistent performances. But no matter how lifelike, a hologram still favors the second half of that adjective more than the first. Sure, a holographic version of, say, Amy Winehouse will always show up on time and sober — and, until the AI gets good enough, presumably never feel exploited for doing so — but will she have the inner spark that made Winehouse so charismatic to audiences in the first place? That transcends the illusion? David says yes. “It’s up to how good the [3-D modeling] is,” says David. “You know when you go to a waxwork, a lot of the statues are perfect? That’s down to the waxwork artist. It’s the same thing here.” Madame Tussaud’s seems like a low bar, but then again, Madame Tussaud’s has been in business for more than 200 years.
When I suggest that, perhaps, there’s something innately missing — in a carob-versus-cocoa way — from holography that has prevented it from capturing the wider imagination since Pepper’s Ghost’s first flash of fame fizzled, David wags his finger no. “Everybody that works for me, they still get excited when we show a new one. We’ve really only scratched the surface of what we can do. The technology doesn’t get worse over time; it only gets better. Imagine,” he says, “bringing back the Beatles.” He also mentions resurrecting Jesus. “You just have to be able,” David says, “to recognize the possibilities.”
I’m curious, after talking with David, to see how people without a deep financial interest and a blaring bullhorn are using holograms. So I take the ferry from South Street out to Governors Island, where a gray-haired man named Sam Moree is sitting in rumpled black clothes behind a desk, staring out the window of a clapboard house. “I’ve been here since 1975,” he says by way of introduction, and by that he means, I assume, making holograms. We’re in the temporary installation of the Holocenter, a small organization for which the 69-year-old Moree teaches the art of holography. The wood flooring is dirty, and paint is peeling from the walls. Moree asks me to follow him as he shuffles into the adjacent room.
My eyes go wide. Here’s a thick swath of rainbow light hovering in space. There’s an explosion of 3-D color against the wall curling and writhing. Moree waves me over to a framed image in the corner. It’s a woman, not a famous one, glowing a translucent green. Her skin sprouts branches and leaves. She’s weirder and more vivid than the celebrity holograms I’ve seen, and I can’t articulate why she’s so entrancing. Then Moree does it for me. “It doesn’t look,” he says quietly, “like anything you’ve seen before.”
Additional reporting by Torii MacAdams.
*This article appears in the August 10, 2015 issue of New York Magazine.