And reader, I am here to tell you that in 2020, I finally saw Daft Punk play at the trash fence.The secret Daft Punk set was part of BRCvr, one of eight online "multiverses" announced by the Burning Man organization in April as a replacement for this year's actual Black Rock City. The experiences were designed by volunteer Burners themselves, so it is no slight to the org to say that many of these multiverses are a mess. The Ethereal Empyrean Experience crashed my computer. The app page for Multiverse IIR is full of reviews from Burners who paid $8 to enter but couldn't get it to work. (Some multiverses are free, others cost a few bucks.) The Infinite Playa's paid experience is still "coming soon" at time of writing, halfway through the official event week. Artists with oversized ambitions that don't pan out much of the time? That's Burning Man!
No Man’s Sky is getting VR support
BRCvr, however, is emerging as the brightest star in the multiverse. It takes place in Altspace, a free 3D platform that Microsoft bought in 2017 but has since left to its own devices. You get the richest experience using a VR headset such as the Oculus Quest, but it's also accessible on a Windows PC (a Mac version, originally scheduled for early August, is reportedly arriving later this week).I've been wary of virtual reality platforms ever since an early look at Second Life in Oculus gave me horrible motion sickness. Still, I strapped on a friend's Quest to give BRCvr a try, and found myself returning to it way more frequently than I expected. There's a learning curve involved in moving around this virtual Black Rock City, which is often slow to load and occasionally glitchy. No more than 30 avatars are allowed in any space at any one time without special dispensation from Altspace.
Nintendo’s Virtual Boy 3D Gaming Console. Similar to SEGA, Nintendo also had the vision of putting out a Virtual Reality headset for the gaming market. They even went as far as putting a VR headset on the market, but unfortunately it didn’t make it far. Released in the mid 1990s and known as the Virtual Boy, the device was a 3D gaming console that had a 3D viewing system rigged out to look like virtual reality. While it was way cheaper than the other options on the market at the time, the device also didn’t manage to truly spark the VR movement, simply because it lacked head-tracking and quality graphics and only offered stereoscopic 3D display.
Still, it is fun as hell, and allowed me to interact with old friends and new Burners from around the world as much as if I were at the actual physical event. Receiving "hugs" and emoji from their avatars, corny as it sounds, has been one of the most cathartic experiences of a brutal year.
The customizable avatars are oddly disembodied, with no legs and gaps between their torsos and hands. But the heads and hands reflect what their owners are actually doing, and you hear their voices right next to you. The avatars' cartoonish style means we're not falling into uncanny valley here, but you still have a strong sense of being around fellow human beings.
There are many objects you can pick up and toss around together, and I have fond memories of playing with bouncy balls in a lava pit near a crashed UFO with "Pan" from Los Angeles (who was just going to bed) and Stephanie from London (who was just getting up). A camp named Bubbles and Bass was filled with champagne bottles and glasses, a large dancing sculpture that recalls the classic Burner art Bliss Dance, and a DJ rig that anyone could jump on, causing soap bubbles to fly from the speakers. There are worse ways to spend an afternoon. Oh yeah, and you can fly. A Harry Potter-esque "wand" object, once spawned, can help you travel across the playa with speed. It's a little difficult to master the technique, but once you have it, the experience is as cool as you'd expect. Here are views you never get of Black Rock City; even planes that land at its temporary airport don't have this kind of close-up look, or get to hover right over the Man itself.
The First Commercial VR Devices – The EyePhone Head-Mounted Displays. In the late 1960s, the virtual and augmented reality terms were coined, describing the field of technology we know today. This also encompassed the appearance of two of the very first commercial virtual reality devices in the 1980s in the face of the EyePhone 1 and the EyePhone HRX. Developed by VPL research, a company by Jaron Lanier, the devices were extremely expensive, costing as much as $9,400 for the 1 version and $49,000 for the HRX. Customers could also buy gloves that costed $9,000. While the devices didn’t really take off, which is understanding, having in mind their price, they were a major step forward in the development of virtual reality haptics and virtual reality goggles and head-mounted displays.
I've had the experience of waiting for a friend to join me at the Man many times before, but I've never done so 60 feet in the air while chatting to a random dude from the Netherlands. (The friend eventually showed up, and we went on an expedition to check out the virtual version of Black Rock City's controversial 747 art car.)The locations are all designed by Burners, which the nonprofit art group We Are From Dust helped herd into BRCvr. You get between them using portals, which some pranksters have inserted in models of Burning Man's ubiquitous Port-a-Potties. Some are entirely imaginary, such as Cosmic Inflation, a series of platforms hanging in atomic space, where you can see the Man burn every five minutes. Some pay homage to well-known theme camps, such as Mayan Warrior, a camp where your avatars can dance around to music with flaming torches. Go to the BRC Roller disco, a Burning Man institution, and you can strap legs with skates on your avatar.
No Man's Sky VR is coming this summer
In such moments, long-time attendees like me can be forgiven for getting a weird kind of deja vu. This is enhanced by the fact that many locations move from day to night (on Pacific time, just as the event was). Some BRCvr creators have even included little dust storms that blow randomly through their camps; you can practically taste the gritty playa dust in your teeth. But as with Burning Man itself, it's the people who matter more than the environments. One night I teleported to the replica of a theme camp where many of my friends tend to stay. I found two of them standing by a wonderfully ironic art piece (a geodesic dome with a sign saying "radical inclusion" and a bouncer standing outside). We teleported to a bunch of locations, not all of them inside virtual Burning Man — such as a world where an Altspace creator has replicated a bunch of rides at Disneyland.
Major Brands Are Investing in VR. About 75 percent of the Forbes World’s Most Valuable Brands have created some form of virtual reality or augmented reality experience for customers or employees, or are themselves developing these technologies. Given that this study was conducted in October 2015, the number is likely significantly higher.
Without friends, this would have been an empty experience; with them, we were able to laugh about the fact that an event long described as "hippy Disneyland" had finally merged with the real thing. Kinda.Which brings us to the experience I had on my first BRCvr tour. "Wanna go see Daft Punk at the trash fence?" asked my guide, opening up a private portal to the show. And there they were, on a replica of the stage Daft Punk actually uses, blasting the empty playa with thumping French electronica. I couldn't stop laughing at the in-joke brought to life.
The VFX-1. We can’t do a list about the history of Virtual Reality and not include the VFX-1. Released in the middle of the 1990s, the VFX-1 system was one of the most capable virtual reality headsets released on the market at the time. With stereoscopic 3D, multi-axis head movement detection and rotation, and the ability to play games that were not truly supported by the system, the VFX-1 was the true Virtual Reality deal at the time. Furthermore, their price tag was relatively cheap compared to other products on the market, coming at a mere $600. However, the VFX-1 was too advanced of a technology and it didn’t really take off. Later on, the company Vuzix that made the glasses was bought by Forte Technologies, which released a more expensive VFX 3D version, but it also didn’t manage to achieve huge success.
If Burning Man 2021 actually happens, a big if at the moment, may it be filled from one end of the city to the other with rumors of Daft Punk at the trash fence.