Burns for decades Man represented an escape from present reality. An event for free spirits to rethink the ideals of the new age in a stateless entity where arts, music and parties in the desert plains are paramount.
Over the years, the Bay Area based event has dealt with an internal conflict as the congregation has grown and a strong presence from the wealthy Silicon Valley tech class with stories of turnkey experiences, air-conditioned camps, helicopters and lobster dinners has attracted. Now in the shadow of a historic pandemic, the organization behind the massive, iconic event is working desperately to hold onto its roots while avoiding financial ruin as it converts the 2020 festival to a digital one with the pro bono help of some of its technologies Format changes industry participants.
Just weeks before the event begins, the organization is bringing together a group of technologists with background on virtual reality, blockchain, hypnosis, and immersive theater to create a web of hacked social products that they hope will capture the atmosphere of Burning Man.
Going virtual is an unprecedented step for an event whose very existence already seems to defy precedent.
Burning Man takes place in Nevada's Black Rock Desert in late August each year. For nine days, the participants, who call themselves Brenner, fill the barren landscape with huge art installations, stages and camps. The number of visitors has risen in the last decades to the point at which the federal government got involved. They produced a 170+ page report explaining why attendance at the event should be limited. More than 78,000 people took part in 2019.
It is an escape from society in a shared social experience that does not seem to be reproducible elsewhere.
Steven Blumenfeld became CTO of Burning Man days before those in charge of the organization publicly announced that due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the physical event had been abruptly canceled and the team held a virtual meeting. Although the serial CTO expected the position to be largely associated with tricky chores of maintaining the event's media infrastructure, he was soon forced to rethink the front-end of a sprawling event that is decades old and full of lore.
“My first inclination is, 'Great! Let's build a big 3D VR world, blah blah blah… So I spent the first two weeks looking at what I had for the employees, what I had for the time frame and what we could actually do, ”says Field of flowers. “There was just no way. And you know, I still really wanted to do it. I wanted a challenge … but in reality it just wasn't going to happen. "
Burning Man is a formidable endeavor, with particularly deep emotional impact, in San Francisco, where it first took place in 1986, and, more broadly, in Silicon Valley. Unsurprisingly, when the Burning Man project announced that the event was moving to a digital format, there was a rapid influx of community input trying to decipher what a virtual Burning Man online might look like .
"14,000 people told us they wanted to somehow contribute to a virtual Black Rock City," said Kim Cook, director of arts and civic engagement for the organization. “Some of them said they wanted to add love; That's cool. We also had around a thousand of them saying they wanted to do developer work. "
Some of the groups reaching out to the Burning Man project were companies willing to build a Burning Man experience but wanted an official branding gift. Despite a precarious financial situation, the organizers of Burning Man declined the help of these sponsors and pointed to the adherence to the "de-commodification" by the organization – a wish to prevent the infiltration of the event by companies, to avoid advertising, brand stages and corporate partnerships.
Blumenfeld and others turned their backs on professional studios and opted for a network of small indie teams with Burners willing to develop the official digital experiences for the event in their spare time.
A new moment for social networks
Eight projects ultimately emerged as official "recognized universes", each of which has drastically different approaches to what a virtual burning man should look like. While some focus on virtual reality, others add social layers to video chat or create 3D environments on existing platforms like Second Life or Microsoft AltspaceVR .
During the pandemic, revamped developer conferences and trade shows have been able to port keynote addresses or panels to a Zoom format fairly seamlessly, but there are many elements of the Burning Man experience that the teams involved realize may not be replicated with online platforms can . The developers who are creating the event's virtual worlds are determined to rethink the conventions of online social networking to ensure Burners make new friends this year.
"The feeling of awe and scalability is difficult," says Ed Cooke, who creates one of the official apps. "One way to explain Burning Man is by accessing that state of mind as a side effect of all of the things that happen along the way."
Cooke, a founder of a London startup who also holds the title of Grand Memory Master and has earned, among other things, memorizing the order of 10 card games in less than an hour, built SparkleVerse with his friend Chris Adams, whose daily gig is a Senior Software Manager at Airbnb.
Their web app, which combines a 2D map interface with video chat windows, is primarily focused on advancing how shared context can facilitate and better shape social relationships.
Amid the quarantine, the couple tell theinformationsuperhighway that they created extremely intricate video chat parties for their friends. One example is a moon-themed party that created a clickable map of the lunar surface that took the 200 attendees through 16 separate virtual rooms with their own themes. Before the party began, the hosts guided people through the "Journey to the Moon Experience" by walking them through the effects of weightlessness and instructing them to play along and experience it. Another hot tub-themed party invited guests to jump in their bathtubs before igniting Zoom.
Cooke and Adams rely on some of these mechanics to create a Burning Man theme in hopes that if they orientate themselves towards immersive theaters, people will be able to get more involved in the experience. The acts of driving, losing your phone connection, and feeling tired and hungry on the way to the physical event all add to a "spaciousness in your consciousness" that allows people to act more freely, says Cooke. He wants attendees to repeat these experiences by taking steps outside of their normal life in advance of the event, whether going through an incredibly long video chat session simulating a desert drive or a tent in their living room. or cut off their water supply and avoid showering during the nine days.
"All of this embeds you further and further into this distant context, miles away from your normal life, in which you effectively become a radically less boring person over the course of this time," explains Cooke in a nine-minute video sketching the platform.
Many of the apps build on the idea of how spatial interfaces can promote a larger social context and make it easier to address people and make new friends.
Another official app, Build-a-Burn, takes the idea of a stylized 2D surface for video chat even further with a sketched grayscale map of Black Rock City that users can navigate through tiny stick figures. As a user moves through different camps and their avatars are physically close to each other, new video chat screens pop up and users can gain the experience of venturing into a new social bubble.
While Build-a-Burn and SparkleVerse rely more on video chat, other experiences hope that creating massive 3D landscapes that are true to scale of the real event will help people immerse themselves in the spirit of the event.
Aside from Burn2, which is entirely included in the Second Life platform, most 3D-centric apps incorporate some level of virtual reality support. Projects that support VR headsets include The Infinite Playa, The Bridge Experience, MysticVerse, BRCvr (which uses Microsoft's AltspaceVR platform) and Multiverse.
Each of the VR experiences also allow users to log in on mobile devices or desktops to make sure the apps are more widely accessible.
Read at Extra Crunch how a new generation of chat apps is based on playful surfaces
Multiverse inventor Faryar Ghazanfari, who runs an AR startup and previously worked on Tesla's legal team, said the motives for creating his app were a bit selfish and told theinformationsuperhighway that after the cancellation and feeling of the physical What became "extremely sad" was the need to help build a place where he could reunite with his own camp.
Ghazanfari tells theinformationsuperhighway it is committed to creating the environment that other burners will experience. His main concern is to grasp the complexity of the event. Compared to the other apps, Multiverse mainly focuses on providing a photo-realistic 3D playground that avatars can zoom around on.
“As Burners, we don't see Burning Man just as a music festival or an arts festival. it's much more than that. Burning Man is a social experiment to create a community out of a common struggle, ”says Ghazanfari.
Each of the Burning Man-approved apps seem to deal with creating this collective struggle differently, which seems to be the biggest challenge in moving this event into a virtual format. While the apps hope to bring elements of the physical event into their virtual spaces, the developers also seem to realize that it is unwise to compete with past participants' memories. This is a challenge that dozens of virtual reality startups have faced in recent years.
"I think the biggest challenge is porting something that exists in real life to another platform," said Adam Arrigo, CEO of Wave, a venture-backed startup that originally launched a VR app for music concerts , but since then has shifted the focus to mobile and desktop experiences. "When you are in these digital spaces, the agency you as a user and the experiences you can create are so different from something that could even exist at a concert."
Perhaps the biggest unknown as the organization prepares for Burning Man's August 30th launch date is that no one really has any idea how many people will show up. While Blumenfeld pointed out suggestions that the entire digital event could draw up to 30,000 people during its nine-day run, Ghazanfari hopes hundreds of thousands or millions of users will feed into his experience.
Another internal point of contention is how exactly do the groups want to monetize these digital experiences.
In 2020, the standard ticket price for Burning Man was $ 475. The organization postponed the “main sales” of tickets prior to the cancellation of this year's physical event, but had already sold tens of thousands of tickets. Ticket holders have an option to receive a refund, but the organization has encouraged those who “have the funds” to consider donating all or part of the ticket price instead.
In 2018, Burning Man cost $ 44 million to produce, according to tax documents. The Burning Man project reported approximately $ 43 million in ticket sales from the event. Other donations and sources of income drove the nonprofit's total revenue for that fiscal year to approximately $ 46 million. In a blog post, the event organizers noted that while the group had event insurance, it wasn't covered for a cancellation caused by a pandemic. The company has $ 10 million in cash on hand, according to the Burning Man Project, but expects those funds will be used up by the end of the year to stay afloat. The organization is said to have received a $ 2-5 million loan from the federal government's paycheck protection program.
While some, like Ghazanfari, are pushing for their experiences to be freely accessible with the option to donate later, others have expressed a desire for a single digital ticket that gives attendees access to all eight digital experiences. According to Cooke, users must pay an entry fee of $ 50 to access the SparkleVerse.
Because of the varied experiences made this year – some shipped as native apps, others in HTML5, and others in existing technology platforms – a unified ticketing platform just wouldn't work, Blumenfeld told theinformationsuperhighway. Not all developers were enthusiastic about this result, as they fear that participation in events on certain platforms could be interrupted. The biggest concern seemed to be making sure that all of these efforts were in some way paying off for the organization so that they can continue to host the Burning Man event after the pandemic.
"One of the main reasons we are all doing this is to help Burning Man survive as the Burning Man organization has been hit really hard because of COVID," says Ghazanfari. "The organization is financially in a precarious position."
The organization has been criticized in recent years for the inclusiveness of the event. Some of the developers acknowledge that planning a nine-day trip to the middle of the desert can be daunting and prohibitively expensive for people looking to join the community, and they hope that this year's move to a digital format will open the event for them more people and that these apps can be a less intimidating way for skeptics to get a taste of the community.
Think about the future
None of the developers behind the digital experiences are paid to develop these apps. However, the Burning Man project has granted perpetual licenses to at least some of them to continue operating these digital platforms called Burning Man and an option to monetize them, although a percentage of the proceeds are returned to the organization.
While getting this event across the finish line by the end of the month is daunting enough, the Burning Man project is also trying to ponder how its quick findings will affect the next year, though they hope the physical event will take place in 2021 returns.
Blumenfeld plans to work on the background infrastructure next year so that elements such as gating and ticketing functions can be centralized for a virtual Burning Man.
While eight different experiences this year might make the goal of bringing a large group together more difficult, developers worried about troubleshooting their new apps or the sudden influx of virtual burners overwhelming their infrastructures see multiple entry points for the festival as one necessary logistical step. The organizers hope that the variety of options will interest the participants.
"I think we have a good mix and part of it is that we want to learn," says Blumenfeld. "We're trying very hard to avoid being in Zoom meeting hell."
Whether users connect via video chat or as avatars in a large virtual world, the developers who build Burning Man's virtual experiences believe they are working on the cutting edge of virtual interaction and rethinking elements of modern social networking, to create a virtual Burning Man where people will be able to form new social bonds.
"I fell in love with this idea that at some point in the future some PhD students will write a thesis on the first online Burning Man in 300 years, because it is like an extraordinary moment of avant-garde imagination for the future of human online interaction feels, ”Cooke told theinformationsuperhighway.