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Marjorie Prime: Virtual relatives provide comfort from the afterlife

A couple of years ago, a computer game called Pokémon Go!, which could be played on smartphones, became so popular worldwide that it was said to have crashed the Google servers it was running on. 

People everywhere were peering into their smartphones – not that they needed any additional encouragement to do that – and seeing the world through their cameras, except the world through the smartphone screen was augmented with images of the little critter from Pokémon Go!.

The game involved finding the small, dinosaur-like critter here, there and everywhere. I don’t know what the prize was for finding them, but it seems millions of people were looking for them worldwide. 

This was probably the first time augmented reality had reached the mass market and it likely taught the technology community two valuable lessons: one is that augmented reality need not go the way of so many 3D technologies, that it can be popular and commercially successful; and the other is that a lot more computing power would be required to make it available to the masses.

The technology on show in Marjorie Prime is partly augmented reality, but goes one step further in that the image being superimposed onto the real world does not require a smartphone screen to be seen – it’s a hologram that looks like it’s actually there in real life, and can be viewed and interacted with in our three dimensional world – and it is autonomous or artificially intelligent.

In the film, the hologram is called a “prime” and is basically a virtual clone of the person whose prime it is.

The filmmakers don’t make much of a show of the technology – in fact, there were probably only two or three instances when special effects were used: one was when a real person walks past a hologram and goes through part of their body, and another was when another real person throws a drink in a hologram’s face, which of course goes right through the hologram and hits the wall behind it.

The first hologram we see is a representation of Marjorie’s dead husband, or at least a much younger version of him than the age he was at when he died.

The hologram of the dead husband, played by John Hamm, of Mad Men fame, autonomously gathers and utilises information it gathers about the person of whom he is a hologram.

This is the same as what the other holograms in the film do and it seems to be a feature of the product being supplied by the “Prime” service suppliers.

What is also possible is that the real human characters can kind of program the primes or just directly tell them things which can inform their behaviour or expand their knowledge.

The humans can also do the opposite – limit the information they give them and ask them to forget some things and not mention others.

It’s an imprecise process and leaves the holograms with a lot of decisions to make by themselves. This probably mimics the way actual, human intelligence works better than it does the way computers work.

Computers, of course, do not forget, and they currently have limited ability to combine disparate data and act on their own initiative – whether it’s making decisions based on information that they themselves gather or information that is fed to them externally, perhaps by a human or another computer system.

It’s an interesting film in that sense, as it raises a lot of questions about the “nature”, or rather the features, of artificial intelligence – or machine learning and deep learning, both of which are branches of AI.

But Marjorie Prime is not really a film about technology, or at least technology is not the main subject – it’s human relationships, about family relations, about memories and how they can be buried or dug up and the reasons for doing either one.

The cast includes established Hollywood names Tim Robbins and Geena Davis, with Lois Smith playing the central character, who struggles with progressive dementia or something which makes her forget things frequently.

The film is set in the future, in 2050, but even then, the characters appear to be surprised – or creeped out – at how clever or limited the AI holograms are.

The acting is very good, very engaging, although the Hamm hologram seemed a little more clunky and distracting – robotic, if you will… it didn’t seem as natural and “human” as the other holograms, although maybe the real person it was mimicking was actually like that when he was alive.

Or maybe it was the first generation of the technology and lacked some of the finesse and subtlety of the later versions.

There is a sinister undercurrent to the film, although it’s difficult to say what it was. It’s certainly to do with secrets and serious psychological issues, as suggested by one of the children who killed the family dog and then killed himself. That story is only discussed as a memory and not actually depicted in the film.

There are other similar disturbing aspects, and what seems to have been offered as a solution is the opportunity to talk it all out with a hologram because AI computers are essentially less emotional than real people and can cope with difficult situations better.

Delving deeper into understanding the film, and watching it again, would probably be rewarding and this must have been a factor in the story’s successful staging as a theatre play on Broadway.

Actually Marjorie Prime started out as a play, written by Jordan Harrison, and was nominated for a Pulitzer prize in 2015.

The film has been released a couple of years after the play, but doesn’t seem to have added any bells and whistles in terms of cinematic features – it’s shot like a play, is slow-paced, very stagey, and so on, with minimal special effects, as mentioned earlier.

But sometimes, all those whiz-bang explosions and special effects are just too much in a world where sensory overload has driven a lot of people off the streets and into their homes for a bit of peace and quiet, and even there, it’s scarce.

Hologram technology – sans AI – has been displayed before, probably most famously by CNN during the 2008 US election.

People criticised the technology at the time, but perhaps it was a bit too gimmicky for a news programme, especially when a live feed to a television screen would suffice.

The actual image for the CNN hologram required a disk, placed on the ground, through which light was projected.

But that’s just one technique and it’s not as simple as it sounds, although the film doesn’t show any of the “behind-the-scenes” technology that may have been used.

The CNN hologram was said to have involved 40 HD cameras and 20 computers, using technology from Virzt and SportVu.

How newer systems work, and the market they may have, is probably worth finding out. While not everyone will want to bring back deceased loved ones, it’s certainly a richer form of communication between live people who may be on opposite sides of the world.

Holographic projection systems are built by many different companies and range in price from around $700 to several thousand dollars. A number of examples can be seen at