Last week, following a much-buzzed-about performance at the Coachella music festival by a hologram-like version of the late rapper Tupac Shakur—the video of which promptly went viral—an array of athletes tweeted in awe. LeBron James dubbed the act "crazy, dope." Devante Smith-Pelly of the Ducks called it "the scariest and craziest thing I've ever seen."
Imagine then how James and Smith-Pelly might feel seeing themselves rendered holographically. While Dr. Dre, the record producer behind the Tupac show (who also performed alongside the image at Coachella), is already talking about sending the virtual rapper on tour and resurrecting the likes of Jimi Hendrix and Marvin Gaye, don't think that the sports world hasn't already dreamed of the possibilities: classic contests, fictional games and live events played in different venues across the globe. In fact, in 2010, while campaigning to host the '22 World Cup, Japan promised that if selected, it would beam holographic transmissions from the tournament to the rest of the world so that, say, soccerheads in Seattle could see the action unfolding live and in 3-D on CenturyLink Field.
Seth Riskin, a holography expert at MIT, says that Japan's vision is far from a reality, but he sees steps in that direction as technology creates new avenues for 3-D-style viewing. He points out that the Tupac event wasn't technically a hologram—a 3-D image formed by reconstructed light waves—but "an old theater trick" (the rapper was projected as an animation in 2-D onto a thin metallized film that was invisible to the audience) improved by using new optical materials. Still, he adds, such "new hybrid methods make more things possible."
Nasser Peyghambarian, chair of photonics and lasers at Arizona, is keener on Japan's conceit, having already used holograms to depict live action—albeit nothing larger than one square foot. "It hasn't happened yet," he says of capturing live sports, but "it is absolutely only a matter of time."
In the meantime, a sports version of the Tupac trick seems plausible—with some tweaks. James Rock, director of the London-based company Musion Systems, whose technology combined with the work of Hollywood special effects studio Digital Domain and production company AV Concepts to bring Tupac to life, says that the steep slopes typical of arenas would make it impossible for everyone to see the same image on the screen. Instead, he envisions venues built specifically for this technology, with the greatest potential in re-creating more confined events, such as boxing matches, with spectators all watching from one side.
In other words, don't expect to see the Lakers versus the Celtics in hologram form anytime soon. But based on the success of Tupac's performance, Rock can imagine watching something smaller, such as programmed one-on-one basketball games. Kobe versus Bird, anyone?