Burning Man 2020 — BRCvr is A Homecoming and a Family Reunion
I dove into immersive and spatial technologies in 2018, but I have to admit it wasn’t until earlier this Spring, when I was invited to a very early preview of BRCvr in Altspace, that I finally broke the seal on the box of my Oculus Quest. I had pre-ordered it when they were first released, but it sat in my home office for many months. By now, you don’t actually need a VR headset to visit this edition of the Burning Man Multiverse, but I’m glad I had one, as it was inspiring to drop in and see the work in progress, and then to finally be immersed there as the BRCvr Gate officially opened at midnight on Sunday morning.
Gate opening for BRC-IRL is always a momentous occasion. It’s the first time that the throngs of participants are allowed to enter without special passes for early entry. In my previous role as Head of Technology for Burning Man, for many years as my teams were tying the final bows on the technology infrastructure for Black Rock City, I would do some moonlight volunteering with the Gate crew to work opening night in the lanes, having a great time searching vehicles and scanning tickets. Moonlight in more ways than one, as it was often the midnight-6am shift.
As you approach the Gate in BRCvr, after finding yourself teleported inside a random RV many cars back, it’s oddly comforting to hear the sound of GARS — the Gate Radio System — and the chattering of the usual warnings, traffic updates, public announcements, and “we’re not the ones who hug you” messages. In that familiar environment, listening to the familiar voices of my friends, combined with a chance to explore the loving and accurate details which have been put into that space, and BOOM. I’m home again. Welcome to Black Rock City. May I please see your tickets and search your vehicle?
From the Gate you can portal onto the vast empty playa. One day I showed up and there was a wall of wings to try on and a gaggle of folks chatting and waiting to enter. Of course as playa synchronicity provides, one of those folks was a good friend and former fellow Burning Man staff member, and another was Burning Man’s new CTO who I have (ironically or perfectly?) only met here in Altspace. The family reunion had begun and I hadn’t even entered the city.
By clicking on the wings, they attach themselves to your avatar while in that space. They aren’t persistent so they don’t follow you everywhere you go as you teleport into other worlds, but conveniently they had a pair that matched me and my avatar perfectly!
Speaking of the avatars in BRCvr. Altspace did a huge push before the event to increase the number of options available. Previously when I visited, I was a purple robot — but with their upgrades, I switched to something a little bit more personable. My only complaint is that they still don’t have any dreadlocked or thin braid hair options, which are prevalent in Black Rock City. So, instead of getting purple dreadlocks to match my purple dreadlocks IRL, I opted for this blue and purple spiky mohawk. I guess it looks like a unicorn in the perspective of the selfies, but I’m told it looks like a pretty bad-ass road warrior in world.
You can find and connect with friends on the platform, and send them messages and teleport directly to their location. Also, once you’ve been into some of the worlds in BRCvr, there is a way to favorite them so you can teleport back in, or bring other friends there. This is a really good thing, as this is the first year I don’t have a golf cart!
More and more camps and projects are coming online all the time, and they show up in the Altspace Worlds Beta feature. In addition to flying around (another handy improvement over BRC-IRL), the worlds are joined by a series of teleportation tubes that let you transport between them.
Here are just a few of the locations you can find. Each of which has been rendered (literally) with loving detail, sound effects, and often with hidden easter eggs or interactive elements.
There was a pre-opening night party at the PlayAlchemist Camp. Their pyramid was lit up with their trademark beautiful lights, a great soundtrack was playing in the main space, and the chill tents and fire barrels were all perfectly placed back of house.
Some who are reading this, and haven’t been to Burning Man yet, but who may be familiar with virtual worlds, might not think it is a big deal to have these beautifully crafted virtual environments… but you have to understand, these places are really like this IRL when we visit them in Black Rock City. They are as beautiful in the dusty city in the desert as they are here. It’s like coming home, but with teleportation and instant messaging (which does not actually work reliably in Black Rock City.)
And, there are art projects. Since BRCvr is not bound by time or space, this version of Black Rock City is home to Burning Man art and camps from throughout the years, some historical, and some newly created that none of us have seen yet.
Old habits die hard? This is a photo of a certain speakeasy, which lives hidden away at the back of a popular camp in both BRCvr and BRC-IRL. I’ve been known to end up here on numerous nights during Burning Man, and last night’s opening night was no different.
I was exploring the playa with a dear friend who is in NYC. We haven’t Zoomed or even had a phone call during the pandemic, but we’ve connected in BRCvr several times and shared adventures, just like we would in the real Black Rock City. We probably spent an hour in this speakeasy, laughing ourselves silly while having a snowball fight and spinning a crystal staff. Both of which were provided as interactive fun for visitors. The best is when we started throwing snowballs at an unsuspecting guest who managed to find their way in. Different playa, same hi-jinx and hilarity.
So it’s no doubt that BRCvr has the ability to bring back some strong memories and a sense of coming home. It’s also proven to me that playa synchronicity is still strong, even when it’s a virtual playa. There are even a few benefits to BRCvr. I mean, at Burning Man, you definitely can’t teleport to your friends instantly, and those snowballs in a hot desert? They wouldn’t even stand a chance.