Thousands of fans will turn out to see hip-hop legends Eazy-E and ODB this weekend at the Rock the Bells festival at Shoreline Amphitheatre in Mountain View.

Both rappers, we should add, have been dead for years.

Virtual performances by deceased artists are nothing new to TV and film, but they are to the live performance world. The shot heard 'round the world was fired in 2012 at the Coachella music festival when a hologram of rapper Tupac Shakur (who died in 1996) joined Snoop Dogg and Dr. Dre onstage. That same technology is coming to the Bay Area this weekend at the year's biggest hip-hop festival tour. On Saturday, Eazy-E, the N.W.A. legend who died in 1995, will appear via virtual technology with his old cohorts Bone Thugs-n-Harmony. On Sunday, ODB -- aka Ol' Dirty Bastard, who died in 2004 -- seemingly will rise from the grave to rejoin his buddies in Wu-Tang Clan.

And soon it may not just be a hip-hop thing, says Chang Weisberg, the founder-president of Guerilla Union, which runs Rock the Bells.

"This form of entertainment will be so much bigger down the road," he says. "This is just the tip of the spear."

Yes, the possibilities seem endless. Interested in a Beatles reunion? Technology can make that happen -- at least in a virtual sense. How about Jimi Hendrix burning through a guitar solo? No longer out of the realm of reason. Could fans soon be buying tickets to see Elvis Presley, Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin and Otis Redding?

"I think in the right setting, it can be done," says Chris Martinez, director of marketing at Northern California's Live Nation, the promoter of Rock the Bells. "Like, if you could put Tony Bennett with some old classic jazz person, like Louis Armstrong, that would be dope."


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Still, nobody can reliably predict where virtual technology will take the entertainment industry.

Weisberg, of course, has an vested interest in cheerleading virtual performances. Others think it will never become a major factor.

"It's a special effect -- just like magic tricks or pyro are special effects," says Gary Bongiovanni, editor of the concert industry publication Pollstar. "I don't know that you are going to be looking at a tour of nothing but virtual artists onstage. You might as well be watching a TV show."

What Rock the Bells organizers are promising, however, sounds more like having characters step through the TV screen and carry on in your living room.

Granted, the use of virtual performances is not entirely new to concerts. Fans have grown accustomed to seeing artists -- living artists, usually -- appear via large video screens, especially at country shows, where the performer will sing a duet with a recording of another artist.

In that sense, "holograms" -- at least, what appear to the naked eye to be holograms -- are based on an old theater trick. Tupac's "performance," for example, was created by Tempe, Ariz.-based AV Concepts, which projected an animated version of him onto a screen that was invisible to the audience.

Ironically, it's technology that's been around since the mid-1800s, known as "Pepper's ghost" and the same basic technique behind the ghostly imagery at Disneyland's Haunted Mansion.

Today, many companies are working furiously to take the Pepper's ghost effect to the next level.

"It's a runaway train I'm happy to be part of," says Chris "Broadway" Romero, the vice president of production at 212 Decibels, the New York company that teamed with AV Concepts for Rock the Bells. "At the core, we are transmitting human presence and creating emotion across miles and from past the grave -- straight up 'Star Wars' (expletive). The future is super bright."

The future may be bright, but the setting must be dark for virtual imagery to work. Technically, success depends on many factors including weather, lighting and control of the space. The latter is particularly important since no one wants to see a living Wu-Tang member walk right through the phantom ODB.

It's also important to note that these dearly departed artists never signed off on any of this.

In the case of Rock the Bells, organizers had the blessing of Eazy-E and ODB's families. Krayzie Bone, of Bone Thugs-n-Harmony, guesses that Eazy-E "definitely would" have loved to reappear long after his death.

"Anybody would," Bone notes.

Wish Bone, another member of the group, says that this virtual appearance is important to Eazy-E's legacy.

"It's going to be incredible for the old fans and the new fans, who might not know Eazy-E and what he contributed to rap music," he says. "Sometimes he doesn't get his just due for being a true pioneer."

Follow Jim Harrington at Twitter.com/jimthecritic, Facebook.com/jim.bayareanews and http://blogs.mercurynews.com/aei/category/concerts.

ROCK THE BELLS FESTIVAL
Featuring: Virtual performances by ODB (with Wu-Tang Clan) and Eazy-E (with Bone Thugs-n-Harmony) and more
When: 11 a.m.
Saturday and Sunday
Where: Shoreline
Amphitheatre,
Mountain View
Tickets: $65.50-$125.75 for single-day tickets; $99-$239.50
for two-day passes; www.livenation.com