Burning Man Is Going Virtual This Year: Everything You Need To Know

Burning Man Is Going Virtual This Year: Everything You Need To Know

At a top of a short list of “festivals” that I highly recommend everyone put on their bucket list is none other than Burning Man, a week long celebration of art, music, and free living. Attending the 2013 burn was one of the most awe-inspiring experiences in all my travels.

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Somehow I’ve ended up out of the country for every burn since, but 2020 and the start of a new decade was the year I was planning to go back – until the “Great Pause” happen. Even for an event that beats against the current, bringing together 70,000+ people couldn’t happen. But of course, in the spirit of an ever changing and evolving concept, the folks at Burning Man and all the creative and collaborative souls that make it happen have found a way to keep the streak unbroken – by bringing everyone together VIRTUALLY.

That’s right, 2020’s Burning Man is taking place in virtual reality and the theme is MULTIVERSE. So, if you’ve got your Oculus Quest VR headset, then prepare to stop playing Beat Saber for a bit to head back to the playa. It’s a little daunting at first to take in all this info, so I’ve done my best to distill the information to make it easy for anyone to participate.

In 2020, Burning Man will take place in the Multiverse! During a time when many are unable to gather in person, something truly wondrous has emerged — dozens of imaginative Universe creators built an ever-expanding virtual Burning Man Multiverse comprising eight Universes, a virtual Temple, and a globally distributed Man Burn.

What is the Multiverse?

Burning Man In Virtual Reality Is Not A New Thing

Though most people don’t know about it, there’s a whole community of burners who have been carrying on with the concept of Burning Man in the online game Second Life. The BURN2 universe is a replica of Black Rock City and the town of Gerlach and has been running since 2003.

The organizers put it best. Burning Man is not a festival – it is a temporary city “wherein almost everything that happens is created by its citizens, who are active participants in the experience.”

So, yes it’s virtual this year. Burners will celebrate on their own, in their homes, but they will do share the experience together with the power of the internet and modern technology. It won’t be the same as last year, but it will still be Burning Man.

The Multiverse, as this collective of Burning Man recognized virtual spaces is called, comprises of 8 different virtual interfaces where burners can participate and contribute during Burn week. Some are 2D experiences that you can explore, like a normal website or video on your phone/computer and others are 3D worlds where you can navigate through a virtual avatar on your VR headsets. At the end of the week, there will be a live burning of the Man. Here are the different “universes” and a primer on VR and how far it’s come.

All the universes can be explored in 2D via a mobile device or computer, so I’ll note where the experience has been tailored built for 3D VR. I’ll update with additional information as I experience these spaces for myself when they open.

  1. The Infinite Playa: Interactive recreation of the playa with art, music, games and performances. Best experienced in VR with a headset. Costs between $20-$150 based on how long you want to spend in there. The most expensive of the experiences. You can access the Infinite Playa here, whenever they actually open.
  2. Multiverse: Fully interactive recreation of Black Rock City with art installations to scale and music stages with sets from participating sound camps. Simulated for day or night. Camps can broadcast onto virtual screens in the playa. Best experienced in VR with a headset (update: Burn week is almost over and the developers have disappointingly failed to get their Oculus version out). I’m most excited for this one, based on the information available and even the 2d videos of what the playa looks like. You can access the Multiverse here with links to download the app on your phone or Oculus Quest (when it’s ready). It costs $7.99 for a 7 day pass and you can choose to donate $3 per person to sponsor burners from countries where the multiverse is designated to be free. (update: the place is mostly empty and aside from some music, there’s really nothing making it worthwhile to go in there. There’s no interaction at all).
  3. Sparkleverse: 2D multimedia collaboration space.  Explore by clicking on different areas on a map and interacting using audio, video and messaging. Think Zoom + Google Maps combined. No VR. You can get your donation-based tickets here.
  4. MysticVerse: The MysticVerse put on by Camp Mystic is a virtual playa with performances and talks from artists sharing their work. It was open to submissions leading up to the event, so you can explore different areas where different artists will be hosting and chatting through Zoom. It’s free and you can RSVP here to get information directly from Camp Mystic when it opens.
  5. BRCvr: A VR recreation of Black Rock City in AltSpaceVR, a free VR social app. Using your AltSpaceVR avatar, you can navigate through at-scale current and past installations, structures, theme camps, live talks, classes and performances. It’s free and I’ll check it out to compare it to the Multiverse and Infinite Playa. This is best experienced in VR with instructions here to access in either 2D or 3D. (update: This is probably the best of the bunch, since there’s quite a lot going on and it looks like there are a lot more people interacting in BRCvr. You can teleport into different zones set up by different developers for art installations and performances. There’s even a “time” portal allow you to revisit the Man of year’s past. I really liked this since you can also walk around inside each of these Man structure. The best part here is that there’s ambient noise and people are open to chatting with each other. You can overhear conversations and join in randomly if you’d like. So far, this is the best of the VR experiences.)
  6. BURN2: Burning Man in the Second Life game. Only accommodates 80-90 participants at a time, so I suspect that it will be for people who are already familiar with BURN2 or still play Second Life.
  7. The Bridge Experience: An interactive web-based experience created by the Love Burn team that just requires a Chrome Browser. Free to enter.
  8. Build-A-Burn: 2D world where you can build your own camp and chat with other burners with video and messages based on where you are on the map. Free to enter. You can join here.

The Eternal Empyrean Experience // Temple 2020: In lieu of being able to bring your offerings to the real temple, burners are asked digitally submit their offerings, whether that be a picture, a digital version of an art piece, or a note. These will be transferred to a mechanical hard drive that will be burned and turned into a sculpture. You can find all the information to submit here.

Burn Night: September 5, 2020. This will be a round the clock burn starting at 9 pm New Zealand time and going westward until they reach Hawaii. There’s instructions to build your own 2 foot effigy to burn yourself and share with the global community. All the information can be found here.

Which Universe Should I Go To?

From what I’ve gathered, you can choose to explore any or all of the universes. Some require tickets to be purchases, some are donation based, and some are free. They all offer difference experience, though some will overlap in certain aspects. Like any other year’s Burning Man, there will always be more than you can possibly explore. That’s just the nature of it. Let go of the FOMO, pick one if you’re keen to, and enjoy. Thus far, as cool as the Multiverse looks, I’m sticking with AltSpace’s BRCvr since AltSpace has been around so chances are developers will have a headstart with creating the environment without having to develop from scratch. There’s already built in social aspects to AltSpace which will make it easier for people to chat with each other naturally.

I love that they are making this both 2D and 3D based in line with the radical inclusion principle. Realistically though, I think the VR experience will be vastly better than a 2D experience as far as getting people in the door and buying into this new thing. This means that a much smaller subset of people will be able to get the full experience, especially since headsets like the Oculus Quest are near impossible to find in stock at the moment. This is all personal speculation, so we’ll see how it goes.

Why I Think This Will Work

I have two reasons I think this whole experiencing Burning Man online thing could work – one based on experience and one based on hope.

It’s hard to explain VR until you experience it yourself. Many people will have come across the technology at some point in the last 30 years. Yes, 30 years. Even in the 90’s, I remember a few arcades offering a VR gaming experience where you stand in a platform wearing a clunky low-resolution (by today’s stand) headset and holding onto to two giant plastic laser-tag-esque guns that will allow you to shoot at blocky enemies in a 3-D space. It was both cool and underwhelming at the same time.  In more recent gears, VR has come of age. There are now roller coasters, where every rider wears a headset to give you the real physical thrill of a roller coaster ride combined with computer generated visuals that took you too some far off place. There are dedicated VR arcades now that hook you up to high-resolution headsets so you can play slash at colored boxes flying at you with a light saber. Hard-core gamers spec out their PCs to bring these experiences home.

Still, it hasn’t become mainstream – yet. But it’s very close. With the release of the Oculus Quest last year, VR took another leap forward. The Quest was the first set that allowed you to experience VR completely wire-free and without the need to connect to a computer or a gaming console. I own an Oculus Quest and I’m so blown away by it that I just want everyone to experience a taste of what’s to come. With more people producing content that takes advantage of resolution beyond 8K, and studios porting over the hyper realistic graphics from other systems, VR no longer feels like a gimmick.

In fact, I think one of the biggest reason why it fails to catch on to the average person is because a 2D demonstration of 3D just does not work. When I try to show a video to my friends of what I’m seeing, it’s disappointingly not impressive at all – even to me. You simply do not get scale. With the headset on, a 3 foot box, 6 inches from your eyes, looks exactly like a 3 foot box, 6 inches from your eyes. You can create a 100 foot statue of David and you would be staring up at a giant d*ck. In other words, when I enter the playa in VR, I expect to be able to walk all around that giant metal Octopus spewing out fire just like I did back in 2013. I won’t feel the heat on my skin or the sand under my feet, but it should still be pretty realistic.

The other reason I think it will work is because the real burners will find a way to make the most of the experience. I don’t believe all 70,000 of last year’s participants will agree with me nor do I think a majority of them will take to Burning Man on a phone. But I go to the occasional burner events throughout the year in San Francisco. I’ve seen the community. They are strange, weird, wonderful people. I have hope that the core community will find a way to feel the spirit of Burning Man, even if they have to do it through a Zoom call.

So, here’s to returning to the playa in 2020 like I said I would – even if I have to do it with a headset over my head that requires charging every two hours.

Updated on September 5, 2020


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