Burning Man is probably the largest DIY user generated content experiment ever. The content until now has been mostly in-person or analog, and generally confined to the Black Rock City event and over a hundred official regional events around the globe. With this year’s move to a virtual BRC, which is happening right now on web browsers, mobile phones, and VR headsets all over the planet, all 10 of the multiverse platforms and the content on them are community generated and supported.
As a technologist, systems thinker, and someone who has guided the operational and global systems for the Burning Man organization and Black Rock City event for almost 20 years, it’s a fascinating case study to watch the platforms emerge over the course of just a few months and see what is working, what is not, and what the strengths are and what niche experiences each has to offer.
As of the end of Wednesday of event week, almost halfway through this unprecedented experiment, I can tell you there is magic to be found at virtual Burning Man. Experienced Burners and newbies all over the world are engaging with these platforms, and are having true Burning Man experiences. Sometimes you go solo, sometimes you go with a buddy, sometimes you are in a group. Often you have to work for it, go on a treasure hunt, or persevere technical and logistical challenges, but that is the Burning Man way. Help your friends and neighbors, embrace the digital dust storms and keep your sense of humor handy.
As happens a few days into the in-person event in Black Rock City, some projects (multiverses) are still under construction. Some are open but not all the buttons or features work. Some may still rise up in unbelievable glory, some may end up wrapped in caution tape and surrounded by cones.
It’s worth dipping your toe into each platform to see what magic you can find. Remember your Burning Man experience is your own and you get out of it what you put into it, and in this case, it also helps to have a lot of RAM on your laptop and phone.
In addition to this article I wrote about BRCvr, where I continue to spend hours each evening having absolutely fantastic and hilarious adventures, here are some quick highlights of some of the other platforms that have come online so far.
Build-A-Burn is a really sweet 2D experience which you should visit when you are feeling social and are open to meeting new folks. Wear a funny hat or goggles as sadly our fun camera filters don’t work on this platform. The hand illustrated background has highlights of art projects, camps and objects often found in Black Rock City, like porta-potties and tents.
This is a great one to visit on your own or with a friend. You are basically on a roaming video chat adventure. The main map has many items that are colored or set up to be links where you can “Travel” and find more maps to explore with camp offerings, DJ parties, sound effects, information and games to play. As you get near other figures you have the option to engage with them and say Hello.
Wanda Power and I (Burners call me CameraGirl or CG), are two extremely experienced veteran Burners — she a current and me a previous staff member of the Burning Man organization. Just a few minutes into our exploration, we met three newbie Burners. Two were calling in internationally, one from Australia and one from Amsterdam, and everyone was having a fantastic time and meeting amazing people during their explorations.
Turns out one of our new friends was the artist who spent the last few months drawing all the background illustrations for the Build-A-Burn multiverse, without ever having been to a Burning Man event before! He remarked about the amazing art pieces that he re-imagined for the map and how cool it would be to meet the people who made them ... and before too long we were connecting him with the artists IRL. That is a perfect example of digital-playa magic. Synchronistic encounters! Wishes granted!
The Sparkleverse is like being on a treasure hunt, while riding a teeny digital bike, across the open playa against the wind. You can text chat with other visitors, but it’s mostly a solo adventure unless you coordinate a video roam with friends, or catch an event which is an interactive Zoom experience or maybe a Twitch dance party. You move your little icon around a map of BRC and you can click on camps, art projects to explore or other visitors to connect.
There is a calendar of events, but much like being at Burning Man and exploring, you really have no idea what you might find when you enter a space. I’ve seen YouTube videos, Vimeo videos, TwitchDJ sets, websites, 404 messages, Zoom workshops, 3D models to explore, links to download VR apps from Mozilla repos, live burlesque performances, collaborative doodling tools, artist galleries, and more.
The icon movement and the interface have been a little sluggish, but it’s worth poking around seeing what you can find like a giant game of playa roulette. This is a great palette cleanser between other platforms. You can also play as a team and have several folks exploring and then sharing the fun things they find. Here are a few gems I’ve come across so far.
When you click View the Art, you are taken to a playlist of videos with 12 hours of Daft Punk music. Daft Punk playing ‘at the trash fence’ is a favorite playa rumor.
This touching video about The Monaco mutant vehicle. This is a beautiful sailing vessel which can truly be powered to sail with the wind on the playa. It’s fun to come across videos like this which I have never seen, and at the same time being able to text my friend, the captain of this very vessel, and tell him how much it meant to me to watch his story.
This hilarious video about Britini’s First Porto-potty Experience which is really a brilliant lesson in potty etiquette. Honestly, it’s finds like this that keep me coming back to the Sparkleverse treasure hunt over and over.
An hour of stunning video effects from the Cosmic Chill Space of the Midnight Star Camp.
I wonder if we can get a full catalogue of the links and videos that are listed in the Sparkleverse afterwards. Putting all that into a Burning Man playlist and letting it stream for months might be the only way to get through the rest of the pandemic.
The Dusty Multiverse is a whopping 1.3G download on your mobile phone until/if the VR app is available to sideload. It took me a couple of tries, and clearing up some space on my phone, but I finally got in today. I managed to cruise around for about 30 minutes, before the app went into a spinning wheel start up mode. I spent time yesterday customizing my avatar (one of my favorite parts of this whole virtual Burning Man thing), but I don’t think it saved and honestly for the phone experience, I’m not sure how much it matters.
It took me a few minutes to figure out how to navigate BRC in the app, and the navigation wheel sure takes up a lot of screen real estate, which is a shame because the animation and the graphics look beautiful, or at least I think they would be on a bigger screen or in VR. Looking at Black Rock City through a tiny 6”x3”ish phone screen reminds me why I spent the past year working in immersive augmented reality, and why I am so passionate about immersive and spatial technologies. Being on the vast playa and looking up at monumental structures and art installations is some of what puts the AWE into the awesome experience of being there in person.
I’m looking forward to seeing this in my headset, and have my Oculus Quest ready to sideload the app. Hopefully I’ll have more to say about the experience, beyond the solo phone exploration, after a chance to literally dive into what looks to be a gorgeous recreation of Black Rock City.
The Infinite Playa
Today the advanced sales started for the much anticipated Infinite Playa, the opening of which was pushed back a few days. They have had a 2D version with some highlight video feeds, music performances and more. The flags on their BRC map are clickable and hopefully give a sneak preview of some of the art and events that we can navigate to once the platform opens.
It’s rumored to be gorgeous, and it looks like a high quality MMORPG animation quality production. I’m looking forward to checking it out, though it comes with a pretty serious price tag for hourly and daily rates.
If you haven’t gone to virtual Burning Man yet, don’t worry, there are still plenty of virtual BRCs to explore. Take Friday off and go on a day trip, without ever leaving your house!
How about you, which platforms have you tried? What fun adventures have you had? How many new friends have you made? How many times did you have to reboot, restart, or reload?