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Avatar overload: my trip through the Burning Man metaverse

I am officially living fast. Quite literally, zooming on a hoverboard at 80 miles an hour across the dusty desert plains of Nevada. To my left, a digital light show erupts into the night sky, lasers beaming up to the stars. To my right, tents adorned with neon signs invite me inside. In the distance, I hear the cacophony of a good time: animated chatter, laughter and the dull thud of dancing music. 

In spirit, I’m joining many of the Silicon Valley elite on their annual pilgrimage to the world’s wildest and weirdest festival, Burning Man. In reality, I’m sitting on my sofa in my small study at home in San Francisco, wearing a virtual reality headset and starting to feel queasy. 

For tech workers, as with others, the pandemic has brutally halted partygoing. But, undeterred by physical lockdowns, several groups of “Burner” veterans have made it their mission to replicate the art, music and free-love spirit of the bacchanalian event — in parallel digital universes instead. 

In the particular 3D virtual world I’m in, called the “Dusty Multiverse”, the seven square miles of Burning Man’s Black Rock City has been mapped out to scale, inch by inch, and camps will be hosting DJs and other performances all week. It’s both immersive and interactive; I am able to attend as an avatar, chat with other avatars, dance and enjoy the impressive cyber splendour that appears around me from my hoverboard. 

All is not smooth sailing, however. Within a matter of minutes, I rip off my Oculus headset to swig some water and retch a little. The motion sickness — a common side effect of virtual reality — has kicked in. 

I want to be a headset hedonist. Sadly, all I’m getting is nauseous. 

For years, corporate Silicon Valley has embraced Burning Man proper, preaching the earnest pursuit of “creativity” and collaboration. As I witnessed attending in person in 2019, festivalgoers build — and then take down — makeshift camps in order to live in a cashless “gifting” society for a week, guided by a set of principles that include “radical self-reliance”, “radical inclusion” and “decommodification”. Tickets are $475 (extra camp fees and travel add further expenses), and rumours are rich techies don Morphsuits to attend unnoticed.

It is easy to dismiss the festival — as, alas, I am guilty of doing — as a bit of a “woo woo” charade. But the idea of attending in virtual reality this year piqued my interest as the concept of the “metaverse” slowly filters into the mainstream. Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg recently laid out his vision whereby having a persistent digital avatar in a single digital world — or metaverse — will be ubiquitous. 

On one unnerving occasion, an avatar I was talking to froze, mouth agape, hands mid-gesture. Eventually, I politely moved on

After my lonely and stomach-churning debut on the desert “playa”, I decide to head into 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 is slightly busier and immediately I’m forced to overcome a certain shyness and approach fellow masked strangers. 

Many are longtimers, coming for the nostalgia. But I also meet YEnS, a seemingly cheerful man from Germany whose digital persona is wearing dark glasses and a long white coat with pink dragons on it. He tells me he has been wanting to attend Burning Man for the past 15 years and never managed it. “Now I finally get my chance!” he says. I don’t stay long — I’m feeling sick again and need to open my real-world window. 

Nausea is not the only problem. Much like the real-life Burning Man festival, the virtual burn is close to impossible to navigate. The digital toolkit lacks any map or schedule that allows you to know where to go and when. I spend most of my time trundling around trying to find activities, fellow avatars, new camps; many are empty, save for some monotonous background music. 

In the end, “radical self-reliance” is failing me. I latch on to a friendly, more metaverse-savvy squad of avatars who know how to better get about and have already saved lists of their favourite places. 

These superhumans have also worked out how to open portals that the rest of us can all dive into to teleport elsewhere — as a group. We are cyber explorers! Alternate reality adventurers! One click of my controller and I will be teleporting to a brave new world with my newfound friends! But the magical visuals melt away and are replaced by a loading screen; my headset makes whirring noises and chugs.

‘You can mute or block others,’ reads one message, a reminder of the risk of nastiness in such spaces — but also that, in some ways, we may have more control than we would do in real life

Such delays and glitches are frequent and jarring. (On one unnerving occasion, an avatar I was talking to froze, mouth agape, hands mid-gesture. Eventually, I politely moved on.) A seamless experience, this is not. Our metaverse future will undoubtedly take many years, serious technical advances and billions in investment from deep-pocketed Big Tech groups to become a viable reality. 

Thankfully, there are cute, informational messages on the headset display as a distraction during the wait. “You can mute or block others,” reads one, a stark reminder of the risk of nastiness in such spaces — but also that, in some ways, we may have more control than we would do in real life. “Blocking them will remove them from your experience,” it adds. “Poof!” 

Many old-school “Burners” have in recent years complained that the festival is losing its counterculture edge as the rich, famous and Instagram-friendly have descended on the playa to pose for photos and gather “likes”. 

For the megafans, these cyberworld alternatives may offer some respite. Cartoon avatars, for example, eliminate some of this superficiality; I doubt many, if any, influencers or models are taking time out of their week to master the metaverses. (And, if I’m wrong, you could always make such people go “poof!”)

With only the diehard and nerdiest parts of the community in attendance, an over-cultivated frivolousness gives way to . . . just plain weirdness. 

The BCRvr website says it showcases “art that otherwise would have never been experienced because it could not be built”. At one of its camps, on my arrival, a gargantuan neon cake appears before me then slowly melts in a sleet storm while the Donna Summer version of “MacArthur Park” plays (which includes the lyrics “Someone left the cake out in the rain”), before a silver disco ball falls from the sky, and the rain gives way to rainbows and sunshine. It is so bizarro and refreshing, I chuckle out loud; I fear it won’t be long before corporate interest in virtual spaces means we inevitably end up blasted with advertisements wherever we teleport. Best to enjoy the relative wholesomeness. 

On my final day at the virtual burn, I notice a small wizard-like avatar with a gown and long red beard has learnt how to fly high into the digital sky while at the same time drawing with a pink pen. “Are you a creator?” another avatar calls up to him, as he zooms about the camp leaving pink contrails in his wake. “Nah,” he replies. “I’m just making a mess.”

Hannah Murphy is an FT tech correspondent in San Francisco

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