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VR Enthusiasts at Burning Man Are Making Their Own Camp

"Not everything can be built on the playa." Some art, organizers say, has to be forged in virtual reality.


Last year’s Burning Man — an annual week-long festival in Northern Nevada that’s beloved by techies — included ideation, cuddling and a “worthless currency exchange” hosted by bitcoin enthusiasts.

At this year’s Burning Man, which runs from Aug. 30 to Sept. 7, virtual reality is joining the fray. A camp dedicated to VR will feature live demos of the immersive technology, VR-made art projected on a 36-foot screen, as well as dancers in motion-capture suits whose movements will be mapped onto giant animated robots and Godzilla-like monsters.

“We met at Burning Man, smoking hookah,” lead organizer Shannon Norrell said of his co-organizer, Dara Bonakdar. “I was just like, ‘Dude. You work in VR. I work in VR. We gotta bring VR to Burning Man.'”

Bonakdar said VR apps like Tilt Brush, a Google-owned app that lets users paint in 3-D, will fit right in with the festival’s themes of art and self-expression.

“Not everything can be built on the exterior,” he said. “Not everything can be built on the playa. Not everyone can build a Serpent Mother. They can build something expressive in VR.”

Camp supporter and VR enthusiast Cris Miranda, who will be attending Burning Man for the first time this year, said he expects the tech will also nestle nicely into Burners’ famously liberal attitudes toward drugs.

“Here’s the thing about edibles: Marijuana edibles are not hallucinogenic, in the visual sense,” Miranda said. “You can have audio hallucinations, and some shaking of reality, but nothing visual. With VR, it becomes visually psychedelic.”

Sounds like a match made in heaven. But there’s just one hitch: Running a camp at Burning Man can get very, very expensive.

Norrell estimates the VR Camp will cost about $35,000 without many bells or whistles, and has taken to crowdfunding platforms to try and defray the cost. After raising $4,000 on Indiegogo, he turned to Kickstarter to ask for $10,000. With 12 days left in the all-or-nothing campaign, the organizers have raised $1,729 of that goal.

To further cover some of the costs, and because putting out a tip jar in the Black Rock Desert is a big no-no, the organizers have accepted the help of a few companies in the industry: Google will donate some of its Cardboard VR headsets, Nvidia has contributed graphics cards to power the camp’s computers and VR arcade startup The Void is supporting the Kickstarter campaign by offering up a tour of its own secretive facilities as a reward for big donors. Bonakdar said Valve managing director Gabe Newell — a rockstar celebrity among online gamers — was maybe going to appear in a video for the camp’s Kickstarter, but it seems those talks fell through.

Sponsorships and promotions are a touchy subject at Burning Man, where well-off attendees sneer at the even better-off, who increasingly camp in luxury. Bonakdar stressed that the camp would not look like a VR conference, with company logos plastered all around; even though they are advocating newfangled technology, he and Norrell want to build the camp “the old-fashioned way,” he added.

“Burning Man, it’s not just going out there and having fun,” he said. “It’s also about self-endurance and self-reliance. It’s all the blood — well, hopefully not blood — but it’s the sweat and tears that go into it and make it that much sweeter.”

Not everyone in the VR community has been crazy about the camp idea, though. Bonakdar said some of his peers have been reluctant to support a desert camp that won’t be air-conditioned. And when he tried to post a link to the camp’s Kickstarter to Reddit, the VR enthusiasts of /r/Oculus swiftly voted it down.

“This is so dumb,” one anonymous user wrote. “People are starving and this guy is begging for money to go play VR with trustafarians in the desert? Get fucked. It’s offensive.”

“You’re in a virtual reality subreddit talking about buying PCs that might cost $1,000 or $2,000, and you’re talking about kids starving?” Bonakdar recalled himself thinking. “Come on.”

One way or another, the organizers say the VR Camp is happening. And Miranda prophesied that it will be an important proving ground for virtual reality to reach a new and different group of people who are both technical and creative.

“As the technology is becoming part of the mainstream consciousness, it’s only fitting to be making its way into these communities of creative people,” he said. “VR has a lot of programmers and a lot of dreamers. But Burning Man might be a good place to find some more.”

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