Burning Man 2020 Was a Breakthrough for Virtual Reality

During the Covid-19 pandemic, the annual gathering transformed this year into an online event called the Multiverse.
Burning Man 2020 Was a Breakthrough for Virtual Reality
Image credit: Bunny Holmes

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This story originally appeared on Lucid News

By Chris Pezza

For the first time in its history, amidst the Covid-19 pandemic, the annual Burning Man gathering transformed this year into an online event called the Multiverse. From August 30 to September 6, participants were invited to co-create and explore eight Universes, a virtual Temple, and a global digital Burn of the Man which is the event’s traditional climax. As an event producer, a longtime burner, and member of the Black Rock Rangers who help support Burning Man participants, I felt compelled to check it out. 

The Multiverse could be experienced with a mobile device, computer, or virtual reality (VR) headset. Figuring out how to engage with the environment was confusing. I logged into the Multiverse Kindling web portal with friends which offered links to different areas of the event. We reviewed the navigation guide that explained the offerings and technical requirements and dove in using my laptop while roaming around with several Burner friends. 

Source: Burning Man Mutiverse website

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A Virtual Tour

Once inside, we walked around the build-a-burn environment, a playful 2D Universe with a bunch of theme camps that normally populate Black Rock City (BRC), the Burning Man home metropolis in the Black Rock Desert. We checked out some friends who were DJing, and explored the Infinite Playa, a fully interactive, playable experience set to a photoreal rendition of the actual playa, the dry lake bed where the gathering takes place. 

We were impressed by the detail of the environments. The build-a-burn 2D world had a number of people to interact with. The Infinite Playa featured lots of art, but without an obvious way to engage socially. We saw a cool Egyptian temple piece, and attended a DJ set by Desert Dwellers inside a dome. 

My companions and I also discovered digital versions of the TransPortals installations created by long time Burning Man artist Harlan Emil Gruber who describes these works as “Evolutionary Interfaces.” “At first I wasn’t interested in virtual Burning Man,” says Gruber. “But then I realized that my portals would actually work well virtually.”

Source: Harlan Emil Gruber taken in Multiverse IIR

While we had fun spending time together and were impressed with the scope of the offerings, it was easy to become disenchanted within an hour or two of staring at our screens. 

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So how much did the experience live up the actual event? 

The breadth of the content in the Multiverse was impressive, though it often wasn’t entirely clear how to engage. And there were technical problems. Certain offerings wouldn’t load or would overwhelm my computer, a several-year-old top-tier Macbook Pro. 

The balance of discoverability and immediacy did seem strikingly similar to the real event. When you’re at Burning Man, you can never see everything. It’s also sometimes hard to know exactly where you are. 

The virtual version had these same qualities of psychedelic immersion and disorientation. In addition to attending some 2D portions of the event using a laptop, I spoke with a number of attendees who interacted with the event either through a computer or a VR headset.

Bunny Holmes, a Bay Area-based entertainment producer who has attended the Burn for 10 years, engaged with the alt-space VR app in the Multiverse using an Oculus Quest gaming headset. She describes one of her favorite experiences interacting with other Burners.

“I was lying on the ground (actually on the floor in my kitchen with a VR headset on) with some friends gazing up at the Tree of Tenere and having a conversation when two strangers ran up yelling “snowball fight!” and hit us with snowballs; we ran after them and had a delightful time hurling pixels back and forth for a while,” says Holmes. “It was unexpected, playful, pretty, and a chance to meet and play with strangers in a way that felt a lot like actually being at the burn.”

Source: Taken at BRC VR in AltSpace, on an Oculus Quest, by Bunny Holmes

Some artists believe that the Multiverse may have set new expectations for parallel real and virtual worlds. Music producer Erothyme observed that the event “got me pondering a hypothetical future where the virtual and physical Burning Mans overlap, and wondering if the pandemic has made that future more likely to happen.” 

Although some were able to find some meaning in the VR experience, for many Burners the loss of their annual ritual was profound. The Tea Faerie, a 22-year Burner and one of the leaders of Burning Man Esplanade camp Prometheatrics, says the VR became most real for her when she went out to the trash fence, which circles the perimeter of Black Rock City, for her annual Thursday night ritual on the playa.

“I was proud that my home camp had an honorably well put together presence there,” says The Tea Faerie of her virtual experience at the trash fence. “It was both exciting and heartwarming to be able to tap into a simulacrum that at the very least evokes the memory of the felt experience of the actual event, and that, in its best moments, made me feel like I was in some meaningful way at least there in spirit.” 

Source: From the Prometheatrics camp at BRC VR in AltSpace, taken on Oculus Vive, from The Tea Faerie 

The Tea Faerie adds that while her encounter brought forward warm feelings, the experience of Burning Man “is simply not available when you are actually alone and tuning in from the comfort of your living room.” 

“Of course, it was not quite the genuine experience of ecstatic communion that we all kind of need more than ever at this particular moment, and there’s no way that it possibly could have been,” says The Tea Faerie.

Is the Multiverse a more inclusive version of Burning Man? 

For participants without access to specialized gear, the barrier to entry was high. You needed expensive equipment and had to pay to access certain experiences. When asked about the inclusivity of this year’s event, Holmes noted that “buying an Oculus headset costs less than the ticket.” Tickets for Burning Man during the regular sale start at $425 and rise steeply from there.

The classism that exists at Burning Man in the disparity of wealth between attendees was paralleled at the online event. Those with high powered gaming computers or VR headsets had access to content that others did not. Our computers froze and loaded slowly for many experiences. Amusingly, an anonymous source suggested that the “lagginess of the experience felt like not being able to leave camp.”

Source: Taken at BRC VR in AltSpace, on an Oculus Quest, by Bunny Holmes

What’s the significance of the Multiverse for the broader VR industry? 

Perhaps the Multiverse does represent a prototype for the future of VR. “We’re still defining the culture of public play in virtual spaces, on a global level, and that it is still quite new, quite emergent,” explains Holmes. “A lot of the open, creative, playful culture that is present at Burning Man can provide great guidelines for how to treat VR at a time where we really need those guidelines.” 

Source: Taken at BRC VR in AltSpace, on an Oculus Quest, by Bunny Holmes

Homes observes that in the absence of an existing social framework, VR can end up feeling like being on a random message board on the internet. She believes that encouraging VR to feel more like a festival, or Burning Man, could be a positive development. 

“As someone who is interested in VR spaces during COVID, I think that by hosting a Burning Man proxy in VR we are helping to train people culturally, as to what VR interactions can be like in a positive way,” says Holmes. “You’re more likely to interact with a stranger in a friendly way at Burning Man compared to other cities. We need a model like that for VR spaces because they’re intended to be playful.”

Source: Taken at BRC VR in AltSpace, on an Oculus Quest, by Bunny Holmes

Da Moth, a music producer and DJ who performed twice in the dusty Multiverse VR, noted that he “had some seriously silly moments in the BRCvr.” He goes on to say that he “djed a bunch of sets..a few which were pre-recorded so I actually got to attend one of my own dj sets in VR which was real weird.”

“I haven’t laughed that much in months,” says Da Moth. “It’s actually inspired me to get more involved in VR in some way and try to incorporate it into my art.” 

Source: Taken at BRC VR in AltSpace, on an Oculus Quest projected to a Bravia TV, by Da Moth

Da Moth adds that he met one of the Multiverse programmers during the Man Burn who seemed well-equipped with virtual pyrotechnics. “He had all these mods like flaming super balls and fireworks that exploded into giant Reggie Watts heads. I watched DipLo play a super awkward set where he was like 60 feet tall behind the dj booth.”

Source: Taken at BRC VR in AltSpace, on an Oculus Quest, by Bunny Holmes

Can you have catharsis while in VR? 

I agree with fellow Burners who believe that it takes a few days to get the barriers down, to forget your day to day grind, and become immersed in the alternate reality of Burning Man. 

The highlight of Burning Man for many people is the burning of the Temple where participants build memorials to those who have died during the previous year. The Temple is also a place to let go of elements of ourselves that we are ready to release. 

“I spent some time sitting in the Temple thinking about a close friend who passed away this year and that was not without utility,” says The Tea Faerie of the 2020 virtual Temple  “But when I watched the Temple Burn I didn’t cry. I thought that it was beautifully done. But I didn’t quite get the catharsis that I was looking for.” 

The one part of the virtual Burning Man experience that brought the magic home for The Tea Faerie was replicating the annual ritual of reflecting on her goals and making vows on what she wished to accomplish in the coming year. 

“When I got out to the fence on Thursday night, sitting on my living room floor wearing a clunky VR headset and sniffing a ziplock baggie of playa – for just those couple of hours – I believed that I was there. I was deeply grateful that I had been given the opportunity to maintain the continuity of the most sacred of my personal Black Rock City traditions.”

What’s the significance of the Multiverse on events moving forward? 

While some suggest that virtual experiences will never live up to physical events, some participants believe that the 2020 Multiverse signals a shift in the event production space towards a digital first strategy, with accessibility more in mind. 

“Event producers will be incentivized to create accessibility to everyone through a virtual experience, with a physical experience available to a select few, or the risk tolerant,” says experiential producer Benja Juster who works with Take 3 Presents and other event production companies. “The lowest common denominator, the virtual audience, will be able to access all the same content as the IRL audience.”

Beyond the virtual event, some burners headed out to the playa.

Despite the pandemic, some Burners, including Jest, traveled out to the actual playa during Burn week. While Nevada is currently under a burn ban, some permits were apparently handed out. In regards to COVID awareness, Jest observed that “everybody was very cautious,” noting that “in typical Burner fashion masks were worn.” 

An anonymous source, who also went to the playa, shared an amusing anecdote. “I was in the Black Rock Desert, surrounded by friends right after we tricked out our pick up truck as an old school art car, and I got the notification in my pocket that the man was about to burn. I logged onto the cell phone VR experience and yelled out for everyone around to come watch the virtual Burn with me and a bunch of people huddled in to try and watch. I saw 12 bland avatars and tried to yell out “hey losers” to them, but I don’t think the audio worked. Then I watched a single digital firework over the man and closed the app before the Burn started. Then I went to Saturday night at Burning Man.”

Source: Taken at BRC VR in AltSpace, on an Oculus Quest, by Bunny Holmes

Some Burners were less than pleased by those who decided to drive out to the playa which is located outside Gerlach, Nevada. Visionary Artist Michael Divine posted the following on Facebook “Have you heard of the Eleventh Principle of Burning Man practiced by those 3K people who went out to the playa last week? It’s Radical Self-Entitlement.”

Nostalgia was at the heart of the experience.

Longtime Burner Johnny Dwork’s perspective captures the heart of the nostalgia that was represented in the Multiverse. He explains that while the offerings were both wide in scope and often witty, the fundamental limitations of the technology – even the immersive VR – fell noticeably short of offering an experience that is, by its very nature, profoundly rooted in the physical experience. 

“What is Burning Man without The Dust? Without the glorious feelings that arise as the sun sets on the Playa…with the sky turning otherworldly pink and lavender and the skin getting goose-bumps as the air cools off and everyone around us slips into a state of Playa sunset ecstasis?” asks Dwork. “What is Burning Man without feeling another human’s tears wet our shoulders as we give them a hug at the Temple while they mourn the loss of a fellow Burner?”

For all the sincere effort, Dwork believes that Burning Man online is a bit like porn. It may look hot, it may trigger powerful memories and emotions, it may get the job done. But without scent, without tactile connectivity, without the real-time feedback loop that comes when we “merge” into oneness with another, Dwork argues that it’s still just a virtual simulation. 

“If Burning Man in the flesh were not to happen again next year, would I go back and visit BM online? Yes,” says Dwork. “But let’s call it for what it is: BM online is a simulation, a clever moving postcard of something that is made so wondrous, so mysterious, so challenging, so life-affirming because it is a physical experience. Fortunately, even when we are in the default world, the Man burns within many of us.”

Despite its shortcomings, after interviewing a number of participants, I believe the online version of Burning Man proved to be more inclusive and remarkably representative of the physical event. Perhaps the innovations in VR will provide a signal as to how to develop those spaces to be more open, social, and playful. 

Thanks to our months of pandemic-assisted social distancing, future physical events will likely feature corresponding virtual components, bringing more people into the fold of the psychedelic experience. It’s clear that as Burners, we miss gathering with our friends and our community. We yearn to share in the love, joy, and communion that is ever-present at the Burn. 

Even in a virtual space, we share in gratitude and give thanks for all the meaning Burning Man has created in our lives. May we all be able to come together again in the dust sometime soon. 

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