Burning Man 2020 Ups the Ante for Virtual Reality Technology

By Jeryl Marcus

For the first time in its long history, the physical Burning Man was cancelled in response to the health concerns related to large gatherings. Personally, this meant that after ten consecutive years David and I would not pack our motor home with camping supplies, costumes and gifts and travel 3,000 miles in the middle of summer from El Paso to the wind-swept desert of northern Nevada. This also meant that we would not be reuniting with our extended burning Man “family” with whom we build our camp once we arrive in Black Rock City which burners call “Home”.

Or so we thought.

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I went to Burning Man this past week and it was fabulous. Using our Oculus headsets (there are others on the market) we met in the virtual world along with the reportedly 10,000 others – from the comfort of our respective couches wherever that happened to be.

Throughout the seven days, from Sunday, August 30th, to the following Sunday  September 6th, evenings would find me logged in to Altspacevr.com where I then entered BRCvr  and created my avatar, which is a surrogate representation of my body, and roamed the playa in search of friends and new adventures. While we weren’t physically together, we shared memorable experiences in 3D. I stood solemnly beside my daughter as we watched the sun rise together in the distance and tailed my son from one adventure to another. Both of them live in the LA area, and so, I haven’t seen them in months.

A portal for transporting around altspace. Courtesy of the author.

I did not anticipate the richness of the virtual experience that was Burning Man VR. The creativity and technically astute burner community came through to recreate Black Rock City. And while the challenges of the live Burning Man including the extreme temperature fluctuations, the potential for dehydration, and of course the random dust storms all of which contribute to the actual in-person experience, this virtual playa was a richly developed journey, down to the periodic dust storms that whistled overhead and the sound of burning fire that simulate the playa experience.

Using a flight tool we flew high above the ground moving quickly around the “world” circumventing the insufferable and several miles long “Gayte” Road that is the gauntlet through which everyone must pass in order to get inside. In the form of my avatar, I scurried down the pathway of a tunnel, taking a left turn rather than a right and thus losing my friends – which made my virtual experience satisfyingly realistic. I danced with others at a musical concert featuring a popular DJ. (Am I the only person who never heard of Diplo?) I made a new friend in Center Camp. At midnight I joined a quiet meditation session under the stars in a huge and dark night sky. After a few hours traveling and exploring, I would fall exhausted into my comfortable bed in the early hours of the morning– typical!

The author wearing wings! Courtesy of the author.

Avatars are the virtual manifestations of ourselves. For my avatar I selected purple skin and red nail polish. That way, I was easily recognized by my friends wherever we were. Using hand-held devices we manipulated our avatar. If I smiled, my avatar did too and when I turned to respond or address someone, my avatar did as well. I could stare into my son’s eyes, interact with fire torches, and chat with strangers in my actual voice. “Where did you get your wings?” “Where is the portal to the Temple? “Have you been to Center Camp?” Just as the actual Burning Man, there was much to explore and a million ways to participate.

El Paso native who is also my nephew, Doug Jacobson is a founder of BRCvr. We found him and other friends by transporting directly to where they happened to be at the time. On our first visit, Doug showed us around giving us a brief introduction to the possibilities and potential of the virtual playa. One of the places he took us to, for example, was a two-story western-style barn. Before entering, we selected appropriate cowboy attire and then, by way of our avatars, headed inside to see what was what. At the far end was a bar tended by a virtual bartender in a huge cowboy hat. On closer inspection we noticed that he was Russian — an interesting twist.

Author’s son playing with a light saber. Courtesy of the author.

Similarly when we wanted to share a particularly cool experience with others, we could invite them to join us. Portals along the way were the wormholes that transported us quickly to other locations. Very much on the order of Star Trek, the portal beamed us from one place to another. You are here and then you’re somewhere else: first to a dark screen of silent nothingness, and in a blink of an eye we meet again in a new location. When we were exploring together, we coordinated our jump.

Without using superlatives I cannot say enough about this collective feat. Developers say that they hope this shift to a digital format opened the event to more people and made it a less intimidating way for skeptics to get a taste of the community.

By way of the virtual world, the biggest playground on earth just became more accessible to all.

Jeryl and David Marcus are the Regional Contacts for Burning Man. Find our group on Facebook at Border Burners or write us at jack.chill.elpaso@gmail.com to receive periodic information, updates and to ask to join our listserve.