How Digital Technology Can Keep the Past Alive
The amount of information captured by the Internet of Everything is so great it could allow us to recreate in detail events, trends, and even lives.
December 03 , 2013
On April 15, 2012, rapper Tupac Shakur took to the stage in front of a packed crowd at the Coachella Festival in Indio, California. Fans were not just wowed because Tupac had been away from the music scene for some time… but because he had been dead since 1996. The reappearance of the U.S. musician, who was famously murdered in a drive-by shooting in Las Vegas, was no less impressive from having been leaked before the event. Footage of the performance, which ended with Tupac disappearing in a flash of light, went viral.
"We knew it would get some exposure," says Nick Smith, co-founder of AV Concepts, the company that brought Tupac back to life. "But it became the top trending story for a week, with 70 million hits. It was crazy."
AV Concepts ultimately revealed that its stage trick, reported to cost in the low six figures, was not a product of cutting-edge technology but rather an illusion called Pepper's Ghost, which has been used by magicians since the 1800s. But technology could play a much greater role in bringing back past situations, events, and even lives in the future, Smith believes. Right now, the accuracy of any recreation of the past depends on the amount of information there is on the time in question.
"There typically isn't the type of material needed already available, so you have to digitally recreate the person," Smith says. For Tupac, a body double was filmed in a motion-capture studio and the singer's facial features were superimposed on the image.
But Tupac was last alive more than 17 years ago. Since then, the amount of video being recorded has grown exponentially. And it is not just famous faces that are being captured on camera. We live in an age where everyone is a video star. According to the Cisco® Visual Networking Index, by 2017 up to 90 percent of consumer traffic on the Internet should be video, and almost a million minutes of video-based content could cross the network per second. Clearly there is no way traditional video programs, such as movies or TV series, can account for all of this. Much of it is likely to be user-generated material such as video calls or video-over-mobile communications.
Meanwhile the growth of the Internet of Everything could add a new, even more significant layer of potential archive material. Part of this may be video, for instance from public surveillance cameras, movement sensors, or even devices such as baby monitors.
Other types of data, though, might help provide an even richer picture of our everyday lives. Technology thought leaders such as Tim O'Reilly already use terms such as data exhaust or digital footprint to describe the way in which our daily activities are recorded by the digital media we use.
This effect can be multiplied many times over in tomorrow's Internet of Everything. It may be able to register our most mundane actions, from when we switch on a bathroom light or make a cup of coffee to when we leave our home and walk past our local corner store.
It remains to be seen just how these thousands or millions of daily digital touch-points might be used, but the potential implications for fields that rely on recreating the past, such as history or forensics, are obvious. Smith says digital technologies are already helping at least one group of people to deal with a specific kind of past event. Treating war veterans with posttraumatic stress disorder, he points out, is difficult because they often do not want to own up to needing help.
This barrier is easier to break down if the veteran is speaking through an avatar, however. So caregivers have encouraged veterans to recreate themselves in Second Life and then offered them pathways to be able to seek out attention. The avatars created in Second Life can now be holographic-looking beings in real life, using techniques by AV Concepts. "We took that Second Life avatar and we projected that onto a set," says Smith.
"People could actually watch themselves, as a realistic avatar figure, and the way that they absorbed it was even more impactful." The key to these recreations, he adds, is detail. "We're not looking for a hologram, we're trying to recreate something that is as lifelike as possible," he says.
Science fiction writers are already exploring the consequences of this but reality is only a few steps behind. Smith says he has already had conversations with performers about how to keep their legends alive after they die.
"Someone like B.B. King could perform forever," he says. "I was thinking, too, about Steve Jobs. It would be fun to have Steve come back each couple of years and talk about what he created and what he thinks about it, because he probably had the insight to know where it is heading."
There is no reason why lesser mortals might not do the same. "Now is the time to start building those digital assets, while people are alive and can still think about it," Smith believes.
The Internet of Everything could make this digital recording process a lot easier. In doing so, technology might not just help us live longer… it might even help us live forever.
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