What was it like going to Burning Man in virtual reality (VR)? It’s like experiencing the worst acid trip ever — there were towering praying mantises, freaky Alice-in-Wonderland tea parties, creepy NPCs dancing to rave music, and dizzying psychedelic worlds with spinning tunnel rides.
I cannot tell you how many times I shouted, “WTF is this?!” under my Oculus Quest 2 headset and laughed at the sheer ridiculousness of it at all. I saw the strangest, kookiest things that would disturb the average human, but inspire Tim Burton.
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The most bizarre (and impressive) aspect of Burning Man VR, however, was how well the creators were able to replicate the many unforgettable moments that took place in Black Rock City, the thriving, temporary Nevada metropolis that hosts burners every year for one wild week. Unfortunately for hardcore burners, Burning Man was canceled this year and pushed back to 2022. But there was a silver lining: the week-long Burning Man experience moved to Microsoft’s AltSpaceVR app, a VR hangout spot where users can attend stand-up comedy shows, open mic nights, and countless other events.
A Burning Man ticket would typically cost $600, but this year, it was free for AltSpaceVR users, allowing cash-strapped folks to get a taste of what Burning Man has to offer. Taste is the operative word here, though. The visual recreations of the playa seemed freakishly accurate, however, after talking with seasoned burners who have attended Burning Man both virtually and physically, nothing beats the real thing.
Without further ado, let me walk you through my weird journey through Burning Man VR.
Pre-Burning Man VR ceremonial activities
In the middle of the VR desert, there was an intimidating, gargantuan fiery portal that seduced me with its “come hither” flames. The closer I walked to it, the louder its ominous music filled my ears. When I tried to walk through it, I was met with darkness — the simulated Burning Man playa wasn’t yet open. A nearby sign read, “Coming soon.”
“Oh well,” I thought to myself. “I’ll just have to wait one more day for the gates to officially open.” In the distance, I saw a group of avatars congregating around a cylindrical bell hanging from a pole. I walked up to one of ‘em and asked, “Hey! What’s that?” Picking up on my ignorance, he said, “Aha! We’ve got a virgin, folks!” Everyone turned their heads to look at me — a rush of embarrassment burned my cheeks. “In real-life Burning Man, we initiate virgins by telling them to swing on the ‘Greeter Bell’ at the front gate,” he said. “It’s just a propane tank hangin’ on a pole, but it’s tradition.”
He pointed to a nearby mallet. “Go on! Give it a good bang!” I grabbed the mallet with my right hand and swung at it with all my might. A loud gong erupted throughout the virtual desert. “Welcome to Burning Man!” he said. After exchanging a few NSFW jokes about my deflowering, the dude advised me to check out a massive wall that loomed in the distance — and so I did.
When I got there, I was astonished. “The wall” was actually a giant interactive coloring book; several avatars came together with their virtual palettes to paint it.
The experience set the tone for the opening of Burning Man. After all, one of the 10 Principles of Burning Man is participation. Burners are strongly encouraged to immerse themselves in all the art installations featured at Burning Man, so the erection of a massive coloring-book wall was extremely clever and encapsulated the Burning Man ethos.
I spent about a half-hour peacefully coloring the word “there” on a quote that said, “There are so many beautiful reasons to be happy.” And then suddenly, I pressed the wrong button and I got kicked out of the pre-Burning Man event. When I got back, all of my painted progress was gone!
The playa at Burning Man VR
A real-life burner told me there’s an unsavory side to real-world Burning Man that may scare off the faint of heart.
Black Rock City can get scorching hot — it’s in the middle of a desert after all. If you wander too far away from the hub, you could die of heat exhaustion. And the frequent wind-whipping dust storms wreak havoc on your respiratory system and drastically reduce your visibility. Oh, and have you heard of “playa foot”? Don’t walk barefoot! After prolonged contact with the alkali lakebed, your feet will start cracking painfully due to chemicals burning the hell out of your soles. There’s also playa nose and playa lungs, but I won’t get into that.
On top of that, you have to supply your own food and water for the entire week (you can only buy coffee and ice at Burning Man). “I’ve always entertained the idea of going to Burning Man, now it’s a definite no,” I said. “Are you too chicken?” an avatar teased after telling me about the perils of living in Black Rock City. “It’s just too much work,” I said.
Although I could see dust clouds dancing around parked trailers and vans in the simulated playa, I didn’t have to worry about getting playa lungs nor dealing with the headache of lugging bikes and week-long food from New York to Nevada. I got to enjoy Burning Man from the comfort of my air-conditioned, dustless living room.
A seasoned burner told me that the simulated playa looked eerily similar to the real thing. The main difference, he said, is that the energy of real-life Burning Man is unmatched. “Burning Man VR is a lot quieter,” he said. In the last Burning Man (2019), nearly 80,000 people were in attendance. In the simulated playa, however, only 30 to 45 people were present at any given time. Plus, there was barely any music playing.
However, where it gets exciting is that there are countless blue portals populated around the playa that lead you to the most bizarre, user-created worlds and events, which is where Burning Man VR starts to take a weird, twisted turn. The playa is the main hub, if you will. Everyone meets there to start off their Black Rock City journey, and the portals allow users to branch off into different realms that will either take your breath away or prevent you from sleeping that night.
Portals at Burning Man VR
What makes the portals somewhat exhilarating is that you never know where you’ll end up. There were hundreds of them. Although I had a week to explore, there was no way in hell I could visit every one. Many Burning Man VR worlds, by the way, are created using Unity, the same programming engine behind some of the best games on the planet.
In one portal, I ended up at a weird rave party where you could — and I know this is about to sound bizarre — race other avatars on praying mantises. I kid you not, I hopped on a praying mantis and zipped through the air, flying through massive red hoops in the sky.
When I hopped off, I saw a sign that said, “Tarot Reading” and there was an arrow pointing to the left. “Why not?” I thought. I walked inside a huge circus tent with campy decor and bright-colored pillows that beckoned you to sit down. There was a massive table in the middle of the tent, but not a typical table — it featured a live video of a woman shuffling tarot cards.
A female avatar with pink and brown hair greeted me, “Hi there, would you like to get your cards read?” I said, “Sure!” The tarot reader warned me that she’s experiencing a delay, and soon enough, she disappeared. I waited for about a minute or two, and thankfully, she was back. I’ve seen this happen to a few avatars throughout my experience. To truly enjoy VR, you need a solid internet connection or you will have a very bad time, but understandably, not everyone can afford the best Wi-Fi.
The reading was pretty lame, unfortunately. She said something about how my life was on the verge of “transformation” and how I needed to “let go of the past” — you know, truisms many mystics throw at querents that could apply to everyone. However, I respected that she took the time to offer free readings to virtual burners, plus the divination experience added to the whole mystical vibe of Burning Man. I politely thanked her and visited another portal.
Not all portals look like glowy, cylindrical blue gateways. Some of them are elaborate works of art. I once stumbled upon a tree with a humongous, colorful top hat that caught my eye.
There was a doorway at the base of the tree, and when I entered it, I was transported into a beautiful Alice-in-Wonderland themed world. There was plenty of gorgeous artwork depicting some of the most iconic moments of the magical tale, including the notoriously tardy White Rabbit and the infamous tea party.
The creator of the world even placed a 3D set-up of the Alice in Wonderland Mad Tea Party.
This is just a snippet of the worlds I visited. Some portals led me to psychedelic realms that felt as if I was inside of a kaleidoscope; you can step through spinning tunnels that make you feel weightless and buoyant.
Some worlds are so bizarre that you’d be dumbfounded if I tried to describe them, but I’ll try anyway. One particular realm seemed inspired by molecular creatures. Giant, bugged-eyed deformed globs of monsters populated the space. “Nope!” I said. I left as soon as I came.
Art installations at Burning Man VR
One of the reasons why the virtual playa is similar to the real one is that it’s a sprawling, vast desert filled with strange, artsy structures and odd-looking vehicles. Like the real Burning Man, artists flocked to the virtual platform to showcase their artwork. I’m not kidding when I say the simulated playa is boundless. If I didn’t use the fast-flying feature, it’d likely take me forever to explore Black Rock City.
I saw a massive elf shoe in the middle of the playa. Did I get inside it?
I also saw a wide-eyed fish with teeth in the middle of the desert. Did I walk into its mouth?
You know it! And I even saw the ghost of a dead fisherman who must’ve been eaten by the unsightly, aquatic creature.
Did I argue with another avatar that this giant phonograph in the middle of the playa is not called a xylophone? I sure did!
Of course, you could find countless art installations in other worlds throughout the Burning Man VR universe. Some exhibits showed replicas of temples and towering wooden effigies that got burned in the real Black Rock City. Very cool!
But what really caught my eye is a Black Burner exhibit with vivid, gorgeous photos of former Black attendees of Burning Man. It was nice to see momentos of burners who look like me.
People at Burning Man VR
What’s interesting about VR is that it lets you escape awkward human interactions by simply logging off — something you can’t do in real life. With my own eyes, I’ve witnessed someone tell a 75-year-old man (yes, there were elders at Burning Man VR) that he needed to “log off” and proceeded to say, “It was nice talking to you!” And then, one minute later, I saw him reappear at a totally different part of the playa to escape the elderly man. I couldn’t help but laugh.
Burning Man VR wasn’t as alive as I thought it would be. I overheard an Aussie say, “It’s so [expletive] dead when I come on here because you Americans are asleep when we’re awake!” He’s right. I’m a night owl and I’ve checked out the virtual playa during the wee hours of the night, and yes, Burning Man VR is totally dead at 2 a.m EST. During more active hours, the simulated playa always had at least 30 people online (I’ve never seen more than 45), but the other worlds that populate the Burning Man VR universe are often empty. There are so many of ‘em, so it makes sense that only a few avatars would be exploring each one at any given time.
I expected to see a younger crowd, but I didn’t run into any Gen Z or Millennial attendees. I met a software engineer with a deep Southern drawl who told me he lived in Texas alongside his teenage kids. I encountered plenty of seasoned burners, too. One recounted how he used to be a Black Rock Ranger (volunteer guardians that mediate disputes and ensure safety on the playa). Another told me that he attended the real Burning Man 11 times and longed for its return (he couldn’t wait to gaze at half-naked attendees and fist-bump to techno).
I also discovered that you don’t need a headset to visit AltSpaceVR. I remember waving hello at a fellow attendee, but she didn’t gesture back. As it turned out, she couldn’t. “Sorry, I’m in 2D mode on my laptop, so I can’t wave back,” she lamented. “I can only nod!”
Burning Man VR is, without a doubt, one of the weirdest experiences ever: hallucinogenic worlds, strangely beautiful art installations and an eerie recreation of the real-life playa. This piece isn’t necessarily meant to show readers the ins and outs of virtual Burning Man (though that is part of it). Instead, I wanted to convey how we’ve reached a point in technology where we can replicate real-life worlds and place them into the VR realm.
Forget Burning Man. I look forward to the day where I can put on my Oculus Quest 2 headset and visit a spot-on, interactive, bustling 3D recreation of Orlando’s Universal Studios where I can hop on the rides. Or perhaps I can visit a sprawling metropolis like London or Paris. Or maybe I can walk along the tropical beaches of Phuket, Thailand. Hell, AltSpaceVR did it with Black Rock City, why not replicate more real-life places? If Microsoft could manage to accomplish this — and it could with all of the Bing data that it uses for Flight Simulator — I’d say, “take my money!”
If my experience has piqued your interest, you should know that Burning Man VR isn’t over. Virtual Burn Week officially ends on Sept. 8 with a final “Leave No Trace” closing ceremony. Check it out!