Tupac, Charles Dickens Style

I don’t need to go into detail, as you’ve almost certainly already seen the videos of Tupac Shakur performing “live” at Coachella, despite being dead for some 16 years already.  More interesting to me is the technology behind it.

Incidentally, I’ll be talking about this topic on tonight’s showing of Montgomery Week in Review, airing Thursday, April 19, at 8pm on Channel 21, and again at noon on Sunday, April 22.

There are two technologies being used to make this thing happen. The first dates back to it’s first use in 1862 for a Charles Dickens play and it’s called Pepper’s Ghost.  Basically, using a mirror and a piece of glass, they thrilled the Victorian-era audience appear as ghost on stage. For the Tupac appearance, they used super-hi-res projections bounced off a reflective surface on the floor back up to a Mylar screen.  All the components are vastly superior to the 19th century version, but the basic premise is the same.  So now we can get back to enjoying visions of the dead rap star spewing profanities, if you’re into that sort of thing.

The second technology isn’t being discussed in detail by the production company, but is what allowed the illusionary Tupac call a shout-out to Coachella, even though he’d never said that while alive – the festival wasn’t established until he’d been dead for three years.   The production of a realistic performance with new movement and new vocals is at once both more impressive and more insidious.

I can speculate on how it was done.  If you have lots of recordings of someone, eventually, you’ll have every sound they might make.  That’s phonology and a quick Google search suggests English only has 44 sounds from which we build everything we say.  With a bunch of recordings, you can even get them chained together in different orders so you can grab the blending of different sounds. After that, it’s just a programming problem to pull together the sounds and restring them into whatever you want said complete with the variations unique to the original speaker.

With that, you can make it sound like anyone said anything.  Add the ability to animate a figure (think movies like Avatar,) and it’s going to be very hard to say, “I never said that!”  The ramifications for music, movies, and as the diabolical side of the human mind gets to work on it, politics, religion, and espionage are staggering.

So, what do you think? Do you like where this is going or is a sense of alarm justified?


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About Aaron Overton

Aaron Overton, Founder and CEO of Heatherstone, has been creating great software and developing exciting businesses for over 15 years.


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