Kim Kardashian’s latest appearance in the news comes after sharing a surprise birthday present from Kanye. Posting a video of “the most thoughtful gift of a lifetime” it shows a hologram of her deceased father sending a message for her 40th birthday.
In the message, Robert Kardashian, who died in 2003, tells Kim he watches over her as well as dancing, telling jokes and praising Kanye as “the most, most, most, most, most, most, genius man in the world” (a giveaway of who wrote the script). The gift has been met with mixed reviews, with some seeing it as very thoughtful and others criticising the expense.
How was the hologram made?
This is not the first time we’ve seen a celebrity hologram. At the Coachella festival in 2012, Tupac was brought back to life for an audience in a similar way. Although it hasn’t been revealed exactly how Robert Kardashian’s hologram was created, a company called Kaleida has claimed to have made it.
What we are calling holograms here is not what we see in science fiction films where figures appear from small devices to carry their messages. The holograms we see are from visual effects that first originated with a technique called Pepper’s Ghost used in plays in the late 1800s. An actor in an unseen room is lit so that their reflection in an angled pane of glass looks like a ghostly figure on stage.
Over time, the materials used became less cumbersome than a glass panel and video began to be projected onto it rather than a figure in another room. Now with the availability of artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning, the videos projected don’t have to be of a living person.
Creating the video initially would have used someone acting as a body double – performing the actions they wanted Robert Kardashian to make and trying to move in a similar way to how he did, imitating any ticks or characteristic movements. It’s important that they get the physicality right.
Next, using machine learning, an algorithm tries to match the facial expressions of the person being created and the body double. From studying videos and images of your subject this creates their facial expressions for the hologram. Their voice is created in a similar way, using AI and old recordings of them.
Kaleida uses a material called Holonet which is a very thin gauze to project onto. It allows much more range than the glass used in the basic Pepper’s Ghost hologram. It’s more portable and is very bright, giving a better image when watching.
What are the ethics surrounding hologram creation?
Since Kim tweeted the video, there has been lots of discussion about the ethics of producing these kinds of holograms. It brings into question the rights people have after they die – they have no control over how they are portrayed in a holographic image. Whoever creates the holograms has huge power over the deceased person’s image, able to make them do or say whatever they want.
Even the creation of holograms of people who are currently alive is problematic. If made to look realistic enough, holograms can be created so it appears people have said something they haven’t. Imagine the ability to create speeches for world leaders that they never actually said. There’s a huge capacity for disinformation.
Although they have no ethics policy in writing, in an interview with Slate, Kaleida director and producer Daniel Reynolds said: “as a company, we’re kind of in a lucky position where we can act with a conscience and decline work if we want.” So, if they were indeed the creators of Robert Kardashian’s hologram then they deemed it ethical enough to produce.
As technology continues to advance, increasing the ability to make more lifelike holograms, ethics and potentially laws involving holograms will have to be discussed more. Until then, we will all have to become a bit more sceptical of who it is we are watching.