How Burning Man is going virtual in 2020

Burning Man organisers are trying to create a digitally accessible event while remaining true to its anti-corporate routes. It’s a tough balancing act.  

If you’ve never been to Burning Man, the annual festival that takes place in the deep Nevada desert, you probably associate it with intense dance music and low-budget Mad Max lookalikes. This interview with various partygoers by All Gas No Brakes sums it up pretty accurately.

However, despite some of the slightly unhinged behaviour that ends up online, Burning Man has become hugely popular in recent years, boasting over 78,000 attendees in 2019. Its non-profit origins and emphasis on community built events and activities makes it an anomaly of the festival circuit. Brands and advertisers aren’t allowed to sponsor anything or anyone, making it a rare gem in an otherwise heavily corporate-led industry.

All of that has been put to the test this year with the Coronavirus pandemic as organisers have struggled to keep the ship afloat without a real life event for 2020. As with some club promoters and DJ sets, the Burning Man experience will be moving online via apps this year in a rare moment of openness with tech developers that the festival would likely otherwise shy away from.

Don’t worry, corporate sponsorships still won’t be present, but this is an indication that the festival is willing to expand beyond its usual anti-establishment roots, at least during difficult times. The theme this year is ‘Multiverse’, where content creators can submit VR and interactive experiences as part of a wider project. There are eight ‘universes’ that have been finalised as main events, each being created by independent developers working in their free time. You can check out the hub of ‘universes’ on the official Burning Man website here.

What are these ‘universes’ and what do they involve?

All of them take varying approaches in emulating the virtual Burning Man experience, though we won’t be able to see them in full swing until the end of August when the ‘festivities’ begin. You can view previews though. One is called BRCvr and is a complete recreation of the Black Rock City desert that can be explored with a virtual reality headset. It looks a little like Roblox meets Gary’s Mod – take from that what you will – but it certainly is something.

Others include a multiplayer online experience called ‘The Infinite Playa’ that similarly takes place in the desert. Users can interact with a variety of events and link up with other participants in real time. This one looks a little more polished and can be played through any browser, but won’t be accessible through virtual reality. Elsewhere we have one called ‘Multiverse’ that focuses on the night-time light shows and fireworks that take place each year, with an emphasis on realistic fire and detailed avatars. ‘Multiverse’ looks genuinely quite impressive, and is the one I’m most interested in participating in.

A few of the ‘universes’ focus more on video calling and interaction between users, such as ‘Build-A-Burn’ and ‘SparkleVerse’. These are more community driven rather than being big spectacles, but they’re just as important for keeping a sense of human interaction in an otherwise disparate and scattered experience that relies on complex technology.

How will Burning Man actually make money from this?

A big question surrounding all of this initiative is – will people actually turn up and use these experiences?

It’s a bit of a double edged sword. On the one hand, these apps and creations will be difficult to use if you’re not already interested in tech and web development. A spiritual hippy who’s used to partying in the desert and letting go of deep seeded inhibitions probably isn’t going to be as enthusiastic about jumping onto their smartphone or sticking a VR headset on.

Equally, there’s no real limit on how many people can attend online ‘universe’ events. Traditionally you’d have to think about space to accommodate thousands of people – this is no longer the case. It could generate more buzz and attention for Burning Man too, and may even help to improve its reputation with those who think its just one big acid trip in the heart of Nevada.

For now, the financial cost of each event is up to the developer. Entering the ‘SparkleVerse’ experience requires you to make a donation, with a suggested amount of  $50, but some are pushing for theirs to be free. Burning Man will want to make some cash off this work to stay afloat and it says it has some financial reserves to last until the end of this year. It’s hoped to return as normal in 2021, but for now we’ll have to wait and see.

I’ll see you on the virtual desert plains of ‘Multiverse’ at the end of this month. Though I probably won’t be drinking as much as I would if I were at the real thing.

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