Avatar Overload: My Journey through the Burning Man Metaverse

I officially live fast. Quite literally, zooming in on a hoverboard at 80 miles per hour through the flat dust of the Nevada desert. To my left, a digital light show bursts into the night sky, with lasers reaching as far as the stars. To my right, the tents adorned with neon signs invite me inside. In the distance, I hear the cacophony of a good time: lively chatter, laughter, and the muffled noise of dancing music.

In spirit, I will join many of Silicon Valley’s elites on their annual pilgrimage to the world’s wildest and strangest festival, Burning Man. I’m actually sitting on my couch in my little home studio in San Francisco, wearing virtual reality headphones and starting to feel upset.

For tech workers, as with others, the pandemic has brutally halted the party. But, without neglecting the physical blockades, several groups of veterans of “Burner” have become their mission to replicate the art, music and spirit of free love of the bacchanal event, in universes parallel digital.

In the 3D virtual world I’m in, called “Dusty Multiverse,” Burning Man’s seven square miles of Black Rock City have been designed to scale, inch by inch, and the camps will host DJs and other performances throughout the week. . It is both immersive and interactive; I can attend as an avatar, chat with other avatars, dance and enjoy the stunning cyber-splendor that appears around me from my hoverboard.

However, it is not a smooth navigation. Within minutes, I ripped off my Oculus headphones to shock some water and wipe myself a little. Motion sickness, a common side effect of virtual reality, has begun.

I want to be a hedonist of headphones. Unfortunately, all I have is nausea.

For years, Silicon Valley corporate has adopted Burning Man appropriately, preaching serious pursuit of “creativity” and collaboration. As I witnessed the face-to-face attendance in 2019, festival-goers build makeshift camps and then live them to live for a week in a cashless gift society, guided by a set of principles that include “radical self-sufficiency,” “inclusion radical. ”and“ uncomfortable. ”Tickets cost $ 475 (additional camp and travel expenses add additional costs), and rumors are rich technicians giving Morphsuits to attend unnoticed.

It’s easy to say goodbye to the festival, as, unfortunately, I’m guilty of doing it, like a little “woo woo” hoax. But the idea of ​​attending virtual reality this year piqued my interest, as the concept of “metaverse” is slowly seeping into the mainstream. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg recently set out his view that having a persistent digital avatar in a single digital world (or metaverse) will be ubiquitous.

After my lonely, stomach-churning debut on Desert Beach, I decide to head over to a second Burning Man virtual reality app, called BCRvr. There are no fast hoverboards in this world, thankfully (you can teleport between places), but it’s a little busier and I soon find myself forced to overcome some shyness and approach other masked strangers.

Many are long-standing, coming for nostalgia. But I also know YEnS, a seemingly cheerful man from Germany with a digital person wearing dark glasses and a long white coat with pink dragons. He tells me that for 15 years he wanted to attend Burning Man and he never got it. “Now I finally have my chance!” he says. I don’t stay long; i feel sick again and i need to open the real world window.

Nausea is not the only problem. Like the real-life Burning Man festival, virtual recording is almost impossible to navigate. In the set of digital tools there is no map or schedule that lets you know where to go and when. I spend most of my time wandering around trying to find activities, avatar mates, new camps; many are empty, except for monotonous background music.

In the end, “radical self-sufficiency” fails me. I join a friendlier and more metaverse avatar squad who know how to get around better and who have already saved lists of their favorite places.

These superhumans have also figured out how to open portals where the rest of us can dive to teleport to other places, as a group. We are cyber explorers! Alternative reality adventurers! One click of my controller and I will teleport to a new and brave world with my new friends. But the magical images merge and are replaced by a loading screen; my headset makes noises and noises.

These delays and failures are frequent and discordant. (On a disturbing occasion, an avatar I was talking to froze, his mouth agape, his hands half-gestured. Finally, I continued politely.) A perfect experience, it’s not. Our future metaverse will undoubtedly take many years, serious technical advances and billions of investments from large deep-pocket technology groups to become a viable reality.

Fortunately, there are fun and informative messages on the headset screen as a distraction while waiting. “You can silence or block others,” says one, who clearly remembers the risk of unpleasantness in these spaces, but also that somehow we can have more control than we would in real life. “Blocking them will remove them from your experience,” he adds. “Poof!”

Many “Burners” from the old school in recent years they have complained that the festival is losing its edge in counterculture as rich, famous and Instagram-friendly people have come down to the beach to post photos and pick up “likes”.

For megafans, these cyberworld alternatives can offer some respite. Cartoon avatars, for example, eliminate some of this superficiality; I doubt that many, if any, influencers or models will devote themselves to the week to master the metaverses. (And, if I’m wrong, you could always make these people put on “poof!”)

With the presence of only the toughest and craziest parts of the community, it gives way to overly cultivated frivolity. . . simple strangeness.

The BCRvr website says it shows “art that otherwise would never have been experienced because it could not be built.” In one of his camps, on my arrival, a gargantuan neon cake appears in front of me which then slowly melts into a snowstorm as he plays the Donna Summer version of “MacArthur Park” (which includes the lyrics “Someone Left the cake out of the rain “)), before a silver silver ball falls from the sky and the rain gives way to the rainbow and the sun. It’s so weird and refreshing that it laughs out loud; I’m afraid it won’t be long before corporate interest in virtual spaces means we inevitably end up bursting with ads wherever we teleport. It is best to enjoy relative health.

On my last day at the virtual burn, I notice that a little magician-like avatar with a robe and a long red beard has learned to fly in the digital sky while drawing at the same time with a pink pen. “Are you a creator?” another avatar calls to him, as he approaches the camp, leaving traces of pink in his path. “No,” he replies. “I’m making a mess.”

Hannah Murphy is a FT technology correspondent in San Francisco

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