How virtual Burning Man became a VR events success story

After attracting 13,000 visitors last year, BRCvr is back with a VR version of the famed festival.

An image of Helios, an Burning Man VR art installation

Helios is one of many digital art installations in BRCvr.

Image: BRCvr

"It's all about the shenanigans." Scooting back and forth, bopping to the beats of the Black Rock Roller Disco, Athena Demos was getting into the spirit of Burning Man. Virtual Burning Man, that is, as the long-running festival in the Nevada desert has once again been cancelled due to COVID-19 this year.

Taking its place is a series of virtual get-togethers that includes BRCvr, a VR version of Burning Man that takes place entirely in Altspace, Microsoft's social VR events world. BRCvr 2021 officially opened its virtual doors Sunday, and is hosting dozens of virtual camps, events and installations from artists and VR enthusiasts alike until Sept. 7. "It takes a village," Demos said. "It really takes communal effort to make something like this happen."

Demos co-founded BRCvr with VR developer Greg Edwards and filmmaker Doug Jacobson as a way to keep the Burner community connected last year, and were overwhelmed by the response: Not only did the VR festival attract around 13,000 attendees, it also won accolades from the Producers Guild of America and others. Along the way, they also learned how to hold a large-scale, multiday event in VR — a skill that's increasingly in high demand. "We inadvertently created the metaverse," Demos said.

Demos, who is also known as Aunt Athena among Burners, and Jacobson gave me a tour of the virtual Black Rock City a few days ahead of the official start of the BRCvr festival. "We like to say, 'Welcome home,'" Demos said once I had teleported to the VR recreation of the Black Rock City Playa. "That's the greeting you get when you first come to Burning Man," she explained.

BRCvr's Playa is a 1:1 recreation of the original festival grounds, complete with a digital version of the Burning Man sculpture at the center, and a series of camps and art installations spread around it. BRCvr and its collaborators have created 20 to 30 of these camps, and Jacobson estimated that community creators will add around another 100 this year. "We are finding that the secret sauce is community," he said. "Finding communities that are very into something, and bringing them into the digital space."

At BRCvr 2021, these communities and art installations include a VW Bus Camp, a maze, a spaceport, a speakeasy and more. Some of these are digital recreations of past years' Burning Man Camps, while others are fully embracing VR to create digital spaces that wouldn't be possible in the real world. "We do have some worlds that are very much representative of Burning Man," Demos said. "It creates a sense of normalcy."

Many of these camps host pre-scheduled events, but BRCvr visitors are also encouraged to explore. "One thing to do at Burning Man is to get together with your friends and go on a wander," Demos said. "We call it a Playa crawl."

Except, in VR, attendees don't have to walk. Instead, they can fly, and see the entire festival from a bird's eye perspective — provided that they are able to master a few of Altspace's advanced capabilities, something I admittedly struggled with. Getting people familiar with the intricacies of Altspace, which is available on major VR headsets as well as desktop computers, has been key to the success of BRCvr.

"Community onboarding is actually a lot of effort," Jacobson said. "You have to do well before the event."

The BRCvr team has been extending this kind of handholding to artists as well, providing them with detailed advice (and at times 1:1 help) to port their creations and events to Altspace. All the while, the team has been trying to figure out how to deal with the limitations of the platform. VR headsets like Facebook's Oculus Quest would get easily overwhelmed if they had to load too many high-resolution assets at any given time. That's why BRCvr often previews art pieces in a low polygon version on the main Playa, and then offers portals to dedicated worlds that allow people to explore these pieces in greater detail.

Even with this kind of digital wizardry, and a lot of handholding for first-time attendees, there are bound to be some challenges, acknowledged Demos. "Burning Man has never been an easy thing to go to," she said. "Black Rock Desert is super remote. Getting there, there's always some sort of bump in the road. A flat tire, an overheating car. That difficulty is part of your Burning Man experience. BRCvr is no different."

However, Demos and Jacobson both stressed that VR has allowed them to make Burning Man more accessible. "We are finding this year that we're running into a lot of Burner-curious or Burner-adjacent people," Jacobson said. Demos estimated that about half of the BRCvr audience had never been to the real festival. "There's a lot of people that are teachers, or in school, so they can't go. Or they have a mobility impairment or a health problem and can't go."

The BRCvr already has plans to keep the VR festival alive even after the pandemic subsides. "We're going to take a piece of the virtual world and beam it into the real Burning Man and take the real Burning Man beam it into the virtual world and combine the two as much as possible," Jacobson said. "We think hybrid events are the future."

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