Jeremy Bailenson is the founding director of Stanford’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab and an associate professor in the department of communication. He is a co-author of “Infinite Reality: The Hidden Blueprint of Our Virtual Lives.”
In 2007,a television ad featured a delighted Orville Redenbacher plugged into a new digital music player and proclaiming his popcorn to be as light and fluffy as the miniature device in his hand. The only trouble: At the time of the ad, Redenbacher had been dead for a decade, long before the iPod’s 2001 debut.
This past April, at the Coachella music festival in California, thousands cheered as a hologram of Tupac Shakur, who was shot dead in 1996, showed off dance moves and rap lyrics that created the impression of an entirely new performance. Virtual Tupac appeared side by side with a very live Snoop Dogg.
Then in May, the Hollywood Reporter revealed that a small L.A.-based media company had created a virtual Marilyn Monroe and was planning a global concert tour that would put her on stage with live musicians. Dollar signs seemed to be dancing in the heads of the computer-generating industry. The Reporter quoted Justin Wilkes, an executive with @radical, which has created holograms for clients such as Deutsche Telekom. “There is a genuine feeling that this is cool and this is the future,” Wilkes gushed.
It’s not just the future. It’s the present, and we haven’t begun to deal with the psychological, legal and financial implications of a hologrammed world. Tupac’s mom and Redenbacher’s grandson gave their blessings to the virtual resurrections, but Monroe’s estate immediately threatened a lawsuit. Executives at Digicon Media said that the tour was delayed for technical issues and the legal threat was not a factor.
Seeing the deceased Redenbacher or Tupac speak or move in ways those icons never intended could be at best creepy and at worst an infringement of copyright law. But as trendy as resurrecting celebrities may be, a more pressing concern is understanding the implications of making virtual copies — we call them “doppelgangers” — of the living.
For the past decade at Stanford University’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab, where I work, we have been building three-dimensional images of volunteers — thousands of them over the years — and studying the volunteers’ reactions to seeing their virtual selves. As scientists and scholars, it’s our mission to examine the powerful effects of doppelgangers and alert the public about possible abuse, even as we worry that our work also has possible commercial applications, particularly in advertising and marketing.
Humans have been looking at their reflections for as long as pools of water have existed. Since the 19th century and the invention of photography, we have gotten used to seeing ourselves as others might see us — or at least as the camera lens captured us. The rise of video technology in the past few decades has created “asynchronous” versions of ourselves; we shake our heads ruefully as we watch our younger selves dancing at a wedding years ago.
But virtual doppelgangers allow for a new and mind-blowing experience. Imagine looking in a mirror and seeing your reflection behave in ways beyond your physical abilities. Hit a Mickey Mantle-esque home run. Dance on Broadway, or with the stars. Climb Everest, or the corporate ladder. Seeing your virtual self reach these great heights could be psychologically liberating or devastating, depending on the motives of those who control your avatar.