Convening Leaders 22 closing keynote presenter, former PepsiCo chairman and CEO Indra Nooyi (left), appears as a hologram on stage with emcee Holly Ransom in Las Vegas. (Jacob Slaton Photography)
After Hungarian-British physicist Dennis Gabor came up with a novel method of generating 3D images 71 years ago, it took two decades for him to win the Nobel Prize for his invention, holography. And it has taken even longer for the business events industry to latch on to the technology, but it’s starting to happen.
Holography had its breakthrough moment a decade ago, according to a recent article in Bloomberg Businessweek, when the late rapper Tupac Shakur appeared as a hologram at the Coachella music festival. The music industry caught on, with projected concerts featuring Michael Jackson
and Whitney Houston. Next month, Swedish pop group ABBA will launch what it calls a “revolutionary concert” series. Working with George Lucas’s special effects company Industrial Light & Magic, band members will appear as holographic avatars — dubbed “ABBAtars.”
The goal of the show, reports live event media company XLIVE, “is to blend the physical and the digital — it’s not quite fully in-person, but it’s not quite virtual either.”
Which is exactly the sense I had sitting in the audience at Caesars Forum in January when PCMA Convening Leaders 2022 emcee Holly Ransom spoke from the stage to closing keynote speaker Indra Nooyi, former chairman and CEO of PepsiCo. Nooyi appeared life-sized next to Ransom on the screen as a hologram — the two were seated in similar director-style chairs and spoke to each other in real time. I had to remind myself that Nooyi wasn’t physically sharing the stage with Ransom but was being beamed in from a studio in New York City, some 2,500 miles away.
“No longer the preserve of sci-fi movies, hologram technology is becoming a real communications option,” according to a Reuters article about the torch handoff hologram event at Olympic Games Beijing 2022 between Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach and Alibaba CEO Daniel Zhang. This is happening “especially after COVID-19 put the brakes on global travel, driving firms,” the article said, “to seek alternatives to in- person meetings beyond video conferences.”
That Olympics holographic handoff was a bit of a risk, but Panos Tzivanidis, director, corporate events and services, International Olympic Committee, told Convene that sometimes you have to be the “guinea pig. Otherwise, we’re not going to progress.”
This particular event during the Olympic ceremonies couldn’t be done in person because of COVID safety measures. “For all of us who were working at the Olympics, we couldn’t go out of our closed-loop environments,” Tzivanidis said. “We had a perimeter that we couldn’t leave. The CEO of Alibaba, which is our top partner, was in Shanghai. We wanted to organize a meeting with him and with our president.” The two interacted via Alibaba’s Cloud holographic technology.
While holograms have an obvious application for speakers at business events, Tzivanidis said he sees the technology having even greater potential. “I do not believe yet that the holographic experience is ready for many to many,” he said, meaning more than one person can be beamed from separate locations to appear together to a group. “I think this is where the challenge is, because it’s still heavily dependent on controlled environments, which means that you have to have a TV [broadcast studio] setup. You can have one person speaking to many, but when you want to have a many-to-many, or a few-to-few interaction, it becomes extremely complicated.”
Tzivanidis is looking into incorporating the complete holographic participation of several people at once later this year, who wouldn’t have to be beamed in from a studio.
“We want to see if it is possible to have panel conversations of six participants — three who are physically there and three others who are sitting at the table, but they’re holograms,” he said. “I think we are not far from there. This will be a huge leap to the next level. Holographic presence is about emotions. If I can create the illusion that three people participating in the discussion are there — because we are talking about an illusion — it would mean the world.”
Indra Nooyl in ARHT’s New York City studio (left) and as she appeared as a hologram on stage in Las Vegas. (Screenshot and Jacob Slaton Photography)
Creating the Illusion
The Convening Leaders holographic experience was a coordinated effort between Toronto, Canada–based HoloPresence company ARHT Media and on-site AV company Encore.
Andrew Dorcas, ARHT’s senior vice president, sales and marketing, told Convene that the difference between a webcam and hologram broadcast has a lot to do with the fact that a hologram can appear full size and full body.
“Body language makes up more than half of communication today. We’re robbing audiences of that, I believe, when we are simply accepting a webcam,” Dorcas said. “Webcam also doesn’t allow for that eye contact. And Holly and Indra were up on that stage essentially, to the audience at least, having that connection, which I think is very important for panel discussions, for fireside chats, for moderated conversations. It’s not comparable: It is a postage-stamp version of me, versus a full, life-size, lifelike version of me that is live and interactive. The audience is much more engaged.”
In fact, ARHT’s pharmaceutical and professional services clients report higher engagement and presentation scores when speakers appear as holograms than when they’re in person. “I believe that’s because you’re integrating an element of surprise and delight,” Dorcas said. “And, as human beings, we love to innovate.”
While a successful hologram experience may appear seamless to the audience, it requires checking off a list of items, Dorcas said. For one, making sure that the eye line is correct. “In this case, Indra was looking at a monitor of what was occurring” on stage in Las Vegas, he said. “Where that monitor is, is where she’s going to look. So if that monitor’s on the floor, she’s going to look at Holly’s shoes. If that monitor’s up on a wall, she’s possibly looking over Holly’s head. Imagine if you and I were having a conversation like that on stage,” he said. “It would feel so inauthentic.”