On February 5, political activist Hugo Poidevin attended a rally in Paris to listen to a speech by the French presidential candidate Jean-Luc Melenchon, a leftist politician with a penchant for cutting edge technology.
But Melenchon was not actually at the Paris rally – at least not in the flesh. He was delivering a speech in Lyon, nearly 400km away.
Poidevin, along with thousands of others, gathered in the French capital, facing an empty stage, in anticipation of what would be a first in French politics.
“Resistance!” the crowd in Lyon chanted, as Melenchon began to speak there.
“Where am I? In Lyon?” Melenchon said, rousing the Lyon audience. He snapped his fingers. “And now, in Paris.”
Preluded by a blue flash, Melenchon appeared – as if from thin air – in Paris, in the form of a two-dimensional hologram.
The feat was not science fiction, but rather the work of the same holographic technology used to resurrect iconic musicians such as Tupac Shakur and Michael Jackson.
French company, Adrenaline Studio, which was behind the production, licensed the hologram technology from the British company that brought Shakur back to the stage.
“It was an immediate standing ovation,” said Poidevin, 24, who also volunteers for Melenchon’s campaign.
“The effect was really compelling. I mean, it’s Obi-Wan Melenchon,” Poidevin added, alluding to the futuristic Star Wars-like allure of the stunt.
The definition of “hologram” is slippery. What industry insiders – including those at Adrenaline Studio – excitedly call a hologram is, in fact, “Pepper’s Ghost”, an illusion technique demonstrated in a stage play in 1862. The technique calls for a thick piece of glass, held at a 45-degree angle to reflect a hidden object or image onto a target area.
Still, the live nature of Melenchon’s illusion is unprecedented. And the effect was clearly hypnotic.
“The hologram thing, it kind of, you know, abolishes the distance,” said Ghislain de Violet, a 30-year-old Parisian journalist. “You have the feeling to see the real guy. You just forgot that it’s just a hologram. I thought it was really awesome.”
To create the illusion, technicians first filmed Melenchon live in Lyon. That image was then re-transmitted to Paris by satellite, beamed from a projector onto a screen on the ground, and re-projected onto a transparent screen held at a 45-degree angle.
Some dismissed it as a publicity stunt, or simply made fun of it. But the technology certainly helped Melenchon reach a wider audience.
— Jo Cockerell (@JoCockerell) February 4, 2017
Michael Jackson, Tupac, now Jean-Luc Mélenchon? France's communist leader will do political speeches by hologram. pic.twitter.com/rpda3xED6J
— A Legal Alien (@obrianp) February 2, 2017
— Dan Merly-Sobovitz (@dansobov) February 11, 2017
Melenchon tweeted that 12,000 people attended his Lyon rally, while 6,000 came to see his hologram in Paris. On the same day, only 3,000 people attended a gathering in the city where his far-right opponent Marine Le Pen formally announced her presidential candidacy.
A total of 60,000 people live-streamed Melenchon’s joint rallies on YouTube and Facebook. More than half a million people have watched the speech on YouTube since. His campaign’s frequently updated YouTube channel has garnered more than 200,000 subscribers, a significant jump from the 30,000 French media reported he had in October.
His YouTube audience dwarfs those of his rival candidates. Marine Le Pen has some 12,000 subscribers, and the rest of the field – Francois Fillon, Emmanuel Macron, and Benoit Hamon – all have fewer than 10,000. Even the YouTube accounts for the presidential campaigns of Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton did not stack up to Melenchon’s numbers.
The use of holographic technology in the political sphere is relatively new. Thibault Guillaumont, the founder of French hologram startup, Holusion, said these visual displays help politicians “project a much more modern, prestigious image” of themselves.
But YouTube views, subscriptions, and a “prestigious image” do not always translate to popularity in the polls. Jean-Luc Melenchon has vanishing odds of winning France‘s two-round election, which is to be held in April and May. According to an opinion survey, Le Pen is expected to make it to the final round, with either Fillon or Macron as her final challenger.
Still, Melenchon’s tour de force with holograms is the latest in a possible new trend in politics.
“I think that this is the future,” said Laura Stoker, a political psychologist at the University of California, Berkeley.
“It will be a way to create larger events,” she said. “For example, Donald Trump‘s rally strategy – throughout his campaign, it was a very big deal to have a rally. It was always covered, but now imagine that he can schedule a rally in 10 cities at once. It will be a very big media event.”
“This technology is going to be very powerful,” explained Marius Dragomir, director of the Centre for Media, Data and Society, at Central European University in Budapest, Hungary.
“[Holograms] will transform the way we do and consume politics.”
“[Holograms] definitely [have] the ‘Big Brother’ effect,” Dragomir explained, referring to the superimposed, infinitely reproduced on-screen images of the totalitarian leader of Orwell’s dystopian masterpiece, 1984.
“This technology allows for projection of images as you wish, which can have a huge impact on people,” said Dragomir.
But what could be the psychological effects of this? That remains largely unknown.
“Having more than life-size pictures of yourself looking heroic – this is literally bigging yourself up,” British author and cultural commentator Peter York explained. “It is a ‘guy thing’, mainly … It is all about heroic, oversized, machismo statuary. [Holograms] take it a degree further.”
“It’s like stadium rock – this comes straight out of showmanship,” he said. “[But] when you’re going to a political rally, you’re not supposed to be suspending disbelief. It’s not there for entertainment.”
Sebastien Mizermont, creative director at Adrenaline Studio, the company responsible for creating Melenchon’s hologram, warned against politicians using flashy technology without offering political solutions.
“If we change the level of politicians’ prestige through technology, but not the content of their platforms, that’s dangerous, isn’t it?”
Culturally, holograms might not be universally exportable, as York points out.
“If somebody did it here in the UK, the response would be violent laughter,” he said. “We have a long satirical tradition – we like to make fun of our politicians. We’d think that as particularly pointless and loopy.”
But more alarming than political spectacle is the potential of holographic technology in the hands of military forces.
In 1999, Washington Post journalist William Arkin wrote that the US military had once contemplated using holographic technology to attempt overthrowing Saddam Hussein by, “projecting large, three-dimensional objects that appeared to float in the air”.
“What if the US projected a holographic image of [God] floating over Baghdad urging the Iraqi people and army to rise up against Saddam, a senior Air Force officer asked in 1990?” Arkin wrote.
The project, which sounds more like the arc of a Black Mirror TV episode than a real-life militaristic endeavour, was shelved for logistical reasons; projecting such a hologram over Baghdad would require a mirror “more than a square mile in space,” he further wrote.
Further, as Arkin acknowledged, investigators could not agree on what God would look like.
Holograms are likely to become more and more lifelike. But what they are used for, and whether they become the next big tool for both politicians and governments, remains to be seen.
Dorian Geiger is a Canadian journalist and an award-winning filmmaker based between Doha, Qatar and Queens, New York. He’s a social video producer and a freelance features writer at Al Jazeera English. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram.