illustration of a VR headset

Covid Snuffed Out Burning Man—but the Festival Goes On in VR

Those five years would end up being closer to six. An Indiegogo campaign for the project fell short of its funding goal, and Edwards’ career moved over to the AR side of the synthetic-reality continuum. But then this spring, just as the US was beginning to wake up to the reality of the coronavirus pandemic, his friend Doug Jacobson called. Now that everyone was living in isolation nation, Jacobson said, he wanted to start doing VR hangouts and events—starting with a birthday party. Did Edwards have any VR models that might work?

Lightbulb.

Jacobson was a Burner himself, and had directed a popular documentary about the festival. In fact, the two of them had met at Burning Man—Edwards had camped with Jacobson’s crew his first year there. So Edwards uploaded the build he’d made all those years ago, and they started brainstorming. Jacobson had been exploring the various social VR platforms with his Oculus Quest, and knew he wanted to do it in AltspaceVR. Not only had the company long proven its ability to handle crowds, having hosted live events since 2016, but it had the event in its genes. In 2017, after AltspaceVR shuttered, Microsoft acquired it—in no small part because Microsoft engineer Alex Kipman had met AltspaceVR cofounder Gavan Wilhite at (you guessed it) Burning Man.

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So, it was settled. They’d make Black Rock City in AltspaceVR, and Doug Jacobson would have his birthday party there. That was April 3. Exactly a week later, Burning Man Project announced the 2020 festival was canceled.

Jacobson and Edwards contacted their longtime friend Athena Demos, who’d gotten stuck in quarantine in Panama. (Long story; she was at the Tribal Gathering, which in the midst of the global shutdown became known as “the last festival on Earth.”) A Burner since 1999 and an active member of the LA League of Arts, Demos had been in the room in 2015 the first time Edwards showed his nascent creation to the Burning Man organizers. Six months before Jacobson and Edwards contacted Demos, Burning Man announced that its 2020 theme was going to be “The Multiverse”; now they were going to put that to the test.

Demos looped in one of her Burner friends with valuable virtual experience: Leila Amirsadeghi, who had overseen a massive AR art exhibit in San Francisco called The Unreal Garden. Demos would handle the community, Amirsadeghi would work on outreach, Jacobson would oversee production and content, and Edwards would keep the tech and product stuff moving. Over the next four months and change, the three of them—with the help of a host of volunteers, as well as AltspaceVR, who loved what they were doing—broke into an all-out sprint.

The world of Burning Man is massive, but it’s also insular, so the artists came flocking. People who had never worked in VR shared CAD designs for art installations they’d built at past festivals; VR artists who had never been to Burning Man created psychedelic environments that fit right in to the festival’s 10 founding principles. Some, like Android Jones, bridged the gap perfectly. A Burner and a digital artist, Jones brought his trippy 360 piece Samskara into a dome environment so attendees could lie on the ground and let the visuals wash over them. (Yes, I laid on the ground. Yes, it’s trippy. Yes, even without enhancement.)

BRCvr officially kicked off its week of programming on Sunday, and now there are more than 100 distinct worlds visitors can experience once they go through The Gate. Some, like the Museum of No Spectators, were originally planned for the in-person Burning Man. Artist Kate Greenberg, who designed the pavilion upon which this year’s giant titular Man would perch, recreated her work for BRCvr as well—but not wanting to be limited to just a single Man, Edwards surrounded the pavilion with a series of portals through which people can visit past years’ installations. In BRCvr, virtual reality isn’t just a way to collapse space; it’s a way to collapse time as well.

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