A Virtual Burning Man Experience Is Throwing a Goodbye Party for Today’s VR

I found myself driving a virtual bus in the dust. My avatar and a few others walked around. Bikers were seen in the sand outside. These bikers were real people: this was a 360-degree video. As soon as the clip ended, they stopped moving. For a few moments, I felt like I was at Burning Man, a place I had never been. I’ve been touring BRCvr’s Re-Burn 23, Microsoft’s farewell to virtual space in AltSpaceVR, which is happening this weekend.

BRCvr is a group that has been creating portals and real-life Burning Man memories throughout the pandemic. I have participated in the annual Virtual Burns for the past three years. Free social experiences were some of the highlights of my time inside without a laptop, game console, and VR headset. But BRCvr’s universe, hosted in Microsoft’s AltSpaceVR app, is disappearing soon. Because Microsoft is Shutting down AltSpaceVR And all his world forever in March, part Thousands of layoffs Including many from the company’s VR and AR teams. Burning Man was a common connection between AltSpaceVR founder Gavin Wilhite and former Microsoft AR/VR lead Alex Kipman, and virtual burns, including live concerts with 3D-scanned performers, were a source of experimentation for Microsoft’s technology.

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Athena Demos and Doug Jacobson, founders of BRCvr, spoke with me on Zoom and also talked about the new spaces being shared over the weekend. Despite founders’ dismay at Microsoft’s lack of support for AltSpaceVR’s artists, Spirit is a forward-looking celebration. The goal is not to finish things, but to be curious about what will be created next and where it will be.

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“We found out about it in early December, because we were building AltSpace for Microsoft — when they told us, we were like, ‘What’s going to happen to all your worlds?'” Demos explains. “They want to focus all their efforts on Mesh,” says Demos, referring to Microsoft Cross-platform avatar technology What’s still being fleshed out, meanwhile, is long-standing mixed reality and VR/AR teams are being discarded along with the worlds they’ve built.

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It’s a stark reminder that the virtual world doesn’t last forever, and the future of what everyone is trying to call the “metaverse” is still in flux. In the meantime, though, BRCvr is holding a final virtual burn celebration this weekend to remember what happened and think about what’s next.

A metal scaffolding dome at night in VR features 360-degree video of the people inside.

A 360-degree video of the real-life Thunder Dome resides in the Bubble VR Dome. Enter it and you can enter the moment.

BRCvr (screenshot by Scott Stein)

A celebration, an ending, an evolution

According to the demo, much of BRCvr’s work can be salvaged and used elsewhere. But this is not true for all actors. Some who used AltSpaceVR’s kit to create their work were unable to export their creations at all, causing the art to get stuck in AltSpaceVR and destroyed. This is a cause for artist heartbreak and a cause for concern: if the social world wants us all to create life in this new universe, we need to be able to control how we reproduce our creations and prevent them from being lost. A desire for greater technology.

Demos is optimistic about further progress: “I think all these layoffs will create a bunch of small companies, small projects, a bunch of new technologies. And it’s going to be like a boom — maybe in two or three years, all of a sudden. It would be like, ‘Where did all this distortion come from? To add new ideas.

BRCvr’s previous elaborate layout at AltSpaceVR included a map of Burning Man’s playa that mirrored the real space, with portals and experiences embedded throughout. This time, the social hub is smaller but leads through portals to virtual spaces where immersive videos are layered. For the first time, I’m now watching 360-degree video bubbles showing me what last year’s Burning Man festival was like. As I enter the virtual bar and suddenly inside I see the real bar and the real people there. I enter the half-domed cage where people fight — the Thunder Dome — and for a few moments I forget that I can float out again.

A wooden bar design in VR and a glowing bubble inside with video of the real thing

This open bar now has a video bubble. Go inside and see the real-life version.

BRCvr (screenshot by Scott Stein)

Some exhibits, such as a circular room filled with doors, each of which carries a specific individual tarot card reading, are recreations of Burning Man installations. Others are photogrammetry scans, 3D objects onto which realistic photo details are mapped. Some 360-degree videos are bubbles. Already, it feels full of more moving memories than previous BRCvr Virtual Burns.

Virtual places like these act as living memories of events that have passed over time. But this time these memories are fading for a moment. It’s oddly poetic, considering one of Burning Man and BRCvr’s founding principle is “Leave No Trace.” In this case, thanks to the destruction of AltSpaceVR, it actually will.

But ultimately, these virtual destinations can and should be mirrors of real-world places, connections, and extensions. Demo and Jacobson are working to fix this, one scan and video at a time. Maybe eventually, these virtual worlds and real platforms and software creation will truly co-exist, and I can’t wait to be a part of it when that happens.


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