But with rapid advances in technology, those stars and many more are returning to life through holograms, the three-dimensional light projections that have opened new frontiers for the live music and other industries.
The hologram boom began in April 2012 when Coachella, one of the most influential music festivals, resurrected slain rapper Tupac Shakur in a headlining set by his former collaborators Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg.
Two years later, the King of Pop Michael Jackson came back from the dead at the Billboard Music Awards, the annual event hosted by the US music industry magazine.
In recent months, hologram announcements have become so regular they are almost mainstream. Hologram USA has announced tours by Whitney Houston, who died in 2012.
The firm also plans to bring Billie Holiday, who died in 1959, back to Harlem’s Apollo Theater in what would be the first regularly scheduled hologram show.
Holograms record light fields, rather than standard camera images, thereby allowing a three-dimensional presentation.
For Whitney Houston’s tour, which four venues have so far agreed to welcome, the late singer’s projection will be accompanied by performers on stage.
“Whitney will be able to interact live in a real performance. It won’t be scripted,” Alki David, the founder of Hologram USA, told AFP.
Another US company, Pulse Evolution, is preparing a musical based on Elvis that will take place on stage through virtual reality.
Crossing threshold on believability
John Textor, the chairman of Pulse Evolution which spearheaded the Tupac and Michael Jackson holograms, said it was critical to design real shows, not just to rely on holograms.
He expected the Elvis musical to run 90 minutes and feature live dancers and actors, in the fashion of a Broadway show.
“I don’t believe in digital performance concerts. By the time you get to the third song, you’re done. The novelty is gone,” Textor said in an interview.
Textor sees concerts not as an end in themselves but as one application for virtual reality.
Digital Domain, the company he ran from 2006 to 2012, made its name in cinema and won several Oscars, most notably for 2008’s “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” in which the hero, played by Brad Pitt, ages backwards.
Virtual reality technologists have long warned of the dangers of the “uncanny valley” — a theory that, the more perfectly an image resembles a real being, the more the audience will notice the imperfections.
But for Textor, that bridge has been crossed. In the first part of “Benjamin Button,” he recalled that audiences believed they were watching Pitt, when in fact it was a virtual image.
University of Southern California professor Paul Debevec, a pioneer in the field, said that creating holograms of dead people was much more challenging than the actual concert design.
“The technology that is new and interesting is the ability to create a human likeness to someone that is dead — Tupac, Michael Jackson,” he said.
“The technology of putting it on stage is completely uninteresting.”
Beyond concerts, Textor has plenty of other ideas in store for the technology.
He hopes to “reinvent karaoke” by letting amateur crooners perform with their favorite singers. Textor also sees great possibilities for video games by allowing players to create virtual doubles. “We’re working with gaming companies to bring them out of the stone age,” he said.