#960: How Burning Man’s 10 Principles Got Translated into VR & AltSpace with Athena Demos

Athena Demos is the Chief Cultural & Community Officer for Black Rock Creative and Black Rock City VR (BRCvr). I previously covered BRCvr’s officially-sanctioned multiverse world in AltSpaceVR for Burning Man 2020 with my conversation with lead developer BRCvr Greg Edwards. Demos was a key part of originally connecting Edwards with the Burning Man leadership in 2015 to demo his VR prototype of photogrammetry scans of the Playa in 2014.

Demos helped to coordinate the logistics of a collaboration with Microsoft in hosting BRCvr, and she notes that there were a number of AltSpaceVR & Microsoft staffers who were also Burners, including Alex Kipman. The guiding vision of this collaboration were the 10 Principles of Burning Man, which are: Radical Inclusion, Gifting, Decommodification, Radical Self-reliance, Radical Self-expression, Communal Effort, Civic Responsibility, Leaving No Trace, Participation, & Immediacy. Demos shares some of the fascinating backstory of the collaboration between BRCVR and Microsoft, and the complications of navigating the dynamics of decommodification and gifting.

Overall, it’s interesting to see how these guiding principles were translated from a physical co-located festival into a virtual gathering in AltSpaceVR. These cultural principles were embedded into the worlds and within the social dynamics of the gathering, that I think this made my personal experience different than what I’ve seen before. Perhaps this was due to my own relational dynamics of being connecting to a critical mass of participants that made it interesting to hop between different worlds, but there other aspects as well. There was also the ephemeral promotion of trending worlds isolated to this event, nearly 200 worlds created for this event with a consistent design aesthetic and interlinking between then, as well my own experiences of how the “playa magic” or serendipitous collisions and moments of synchronicity played out through the course of the week. Demos also said that she had a more intense experience of these “playa magic” moments virtually, as she was a nodal connection for many of the participants where it made it easier to teleport directly to the worlds without having to navigate 7-square miles of desert.

Overall, this first virtual Burning Man experience within BRCvr in AltSpaceVR was just the first iteration, and there were a lot of artists who have been really inspired to create a virtual world for next year. With nearly 200 worlds submitted, there were many who tried to recreate the essence of their own theme camps, but seeing what type of virtual art was possible and to see what types of virtual interactions were the most satisfying has provided a lot of inspiration for an entire community of people with a rich history of the Burning Man culture that’s guided by their 10 principles.

I was able to talk with Demos on Wednesday, September 9th, which was just after their final day of BRCvr. We talked about the history and evolution of BRCvr, the unique collaboration with Microsoft, but also her fresh insights into the 10 principles of Burning Man after giving a number of talks in VR about the topic, listening to feedback, and meditating on how these principles are getting implemented in VR.


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Music: Fatality

Rough Transcript

[00:00:05.412] Kent Bye: The Voices of VR Podcast. Hello, my name is Kent Bye, and welcome to the Voices of VR podcast. So Burning Man this year didn't happen in Blackrock City in La Playa in Nevada. It actually happened online across eight different multiverse sites, one of which was AltspaceVR. And so I had a chance to talk to Greg Edwards back in episode 940, talking about the evolution and story of Blackrock City VR. And just after Burning Man, I did a number of different other interviews. because I think there's certain innovations that happened or at least an experience that was new for me. I don't know if it's a broad scale technological innovations for the broader VR community, but I do think that there's very specific things that happen at Burning Man that I think were unique and especially around the Burning Man culture and the different 10 principles that they have and how they embed those principles into all the work that they do. They had nearly 200 worlds that got built in the months leading up to this. But overall, I think it was the people that were there and the different types of interactions and the culture that was using these virtual worlds and virtual reality technologies to try to recreate the essence of Burning Man. So in today's episode, I'm going to talk to Athena Deimos, who was a critical part of helping to introduce this concept to the Burning Man leadership back in 2015, after Greg had done the initial prototype from the 2014 Burning Man. And then this year, in the wake of the pandemic, a lot of that work that he had done earlier became suddenly more relevant in terms of trying to translate this into an experience that could be a part of replacing the actual Burning Man. So Athena is someone who's really involved with culture and the community of Burning Man and really diving deep into the 10 principles. And so in this interview, we talk about the evolution of the BlackRock Studio VR, but also unpack the 10 principles of Burning Man and how they got applied virtually. So that's what we're covering on today's episode of the Voices of VR podcast. So this interview with Athena happened on Wednesday, September 9th, 2020. So with that, let's go ahead and dive right in.

[00:02:06.955] Athena Demos: My name is Athena Demos and I am the Chief Cultural and Community Officer for Big Rock Creative and BRCVR, which is Black Rock City Virtual Reality. It's a virtual reality version of the Black Rock City desert where the Burning Man event is held.

[00:02:26.253] Kent Bye: Great. So I had a chance to talk to Greg Edwards, you know, one of the co-founders of the BlackRock City VR. And he told me a little bit of the backstory of how this came about, but maybe you could give me a bit more context as to your background and your journey into this whole realm of virtual reality.

[00:02:40.379] Athena Demos: Okay. I am a community organizer and I started going to Burning Man in 1999. And by 2002, I was deeply entrenched in the Los Angeles Burning Man community and organizing events, founded the L.A. Decompression Festival with four beautiful, wonderful friends of mine, and I kept producing it from 2002 to 2003. 16, and then became the LA Regional Contact officially in 2009. And in 2011, I formed the Los Angeles League of Arts, which is a public benefit, not-for-profit corporation that umbrellas the LA Burner community. And we helped fund art projects and civic responsibility projects all around the Los Angeles area, and then out into Burning Man. In 2017, I retired from my leadership duties with the LA Regional and the LA League of Arts. But let me backtrack a little bit, because you asked about when I got involved with the project BRCBR and Greg Edwards. And that was actually in 2014, 2015. So I was the executive director of the LA League of Arts and the regional contact, which is like saying that I'm an ambassador of Burning Man to Los Angeles. And Greg came to me because of this position. And we were also friends. And so he came to me and he was like, hey, I have this project. I built all of Burning Man, recreated it from 2014, which was his first year, in VR. And he put a VR headset on my head. And it was the very first time I had ever been in VR. And I was blown away and transported to the playa. I was home. I was back at Burning Man 2014, which was a very important year for me because that was the year that I took my mother to Burning Man. She finally after years of, oh honey, I don't know. It's really dangerous. I don't know. She should be going out there. Year after year, it went from fear to pride with my involvement with Burning Man. And now she was at this point where she was like, I want to go. My father had passed away in 2013, and she wanted to leave a remembrance at the temple and burn for him. And I did as well. So we went in 2014. And so to be transported in VR back to 2014, which was this pinnacle year for my heart that I got to share Burning Man with my mother. And, you know, it sealed the deal for me. And I was like, yes, we have to do this. So I immediately was like, we have to show this to Burning Man. And Greg's like, well, I have a little bit more work I want to do. So 2015, I reached out to Burning Man. And by June of 2015, we flew up to San Francisco. And we were in a boardroom with everyone. And I mean everyone. everyone. I just actually posted those photos on my Facebook wall of when we were showing Larry Harvey and we were showing Dusty and Danger Ranger and Marion was there. I mean I could just like list off the names of the board at that time and everyone was there and we showed everyone and they loved it. But at the time, there wasn't social VR, not like there is now. Greg Edwards was way ahead of his time. And he created something that he didn't even realize the impact of what it was going to be now in 2020. And that is a little bit of what we call playa magic, serendipity, or playadipity, that he created it at that time. That was also a pinnacle year in 2015. Because that was, I believe, when Altspace came around, Oculus was acquired by Facebook. There was like a whole bunch of things that sort of happened in 2015 that laid the foundation for what we were able to do in 2020.

[00:06:55.598] Kent Bye: Yeah, the Facebook acquired Oculus in March 24th of 2014. And the first gathering of consumer VR happened in May of 2014. That's when I started my podcast. I started recording. I talked to Somatic Bruce, who was one of the co-founders of what at that time was Qualia 3D, which eventually became Altspace. And so the seeds of that were also launched in like 2014, but it didn't have an actual launch, I think, until later. And they changed their name to Altspace. Yeah, it was still very early in terms of where this all was going to go. Is Facebook going to release something? And all these other folks are doing stuff. But Allspace actually was a pioneer in the sense that it was the most cross-compatible platform, having access to things like the Gear VR, eventually the Go, which a lot of people that I've talked to, you know, that was their entry point, including Greg Edwards, who had a Go, but nothing else. And so if he wanted to be in VR, then you got to use something that's optimized for the go. So just the fact that he was working on mobile VR and had that specific intention helped make the Black Rock City VR as inclusive as it was. But one of the things that Greg said was that Larry Harvey, you know, he passed away in 2018, but that Greg had said that he sort of comes up with the themes of the camps of Burning Man up to like five years in advance. And so you have this event where he sees this in June in 2015, and then maybe comes up with a multiverse idea at some point. Do you have any additional context as to when when that theme of the multiverse actually came up for Burning Man to come up with the theme of 2020? Because that also seems pretty like quiet magic.

[00:08:30.349] Athena Demos: I do. I thought it was Larry Harvey that came up with multiverse, but last year was his last theme. He did the theme for 2019, but this year it was Stuart Mangrum. And I actually had a quite a lovely conversation with him about like, how did you come up with multiverse like that's crazy. It's crazy how well that it, it works. And he said he was playing with the idea of worlds within worlds and wasn't thinking about technology at all. He was thinking about all the different instances of people and different types of people that are coming in to Burning Man. So it creates this one instance, but then they all take it out from there. And we talked a little bit about Schrodinger's cat. If you see it, it's there, and if it's not, You know, and he goes into this hole, he's at the core of the philosophical center of Burning Man, but nobody could have, you know, he came up with the theme in October, and nobody could have predicted this at all, at all. Like on Burn Night, I'm watching the man burn and I'm watching a live feed of a man burning at Fly Ranch while I'm in VR waiting for our digital burn to happen. And so it was like this, there he is and there's our digital burn and I'm standing around with all these people and I'm having a conversation and we're having a very intense philosophical conversation about technology. the future, where it's going, how this is going to change and evolve the human brain. There were two people there that write satia programs and they were talking about how we're literally causing code to be written. Not that humans are writing the code, but that the machines are to keep this going and We melted servers that night. Like all week long, we're like push, push, push, push, pushing the boundaries of technology. And AllSpace asked us to break it. They were like, just break it. Just break it. We want you to break it. Because if you break it, then we have to make it better. And we don't know how to make it better until you break it. So we broke it. And now they're making it better. So it was Stuart Mangrum last year in October that came up with a theme for the multiverse. And it is incredibly fitting, especially the way BRCVR is laid out. Because you have the main playa, you have the main part of the city with these low-poly count versions of art placeholders. And you go up to this placeholder, and it's amazing in and of itself. And there's a portal in front of it. I heard somebody describe them. They said they look like these blue ethereal burn barrels. So we have these blue ethereal burn barrels, and you walk into one. and you are transported to the high-resolution hallucination of an artist in VR, and you're in the mind of an artist. You literally get transported into the mind and imagination of an artist, and all your friends get to come with you. It's like being on psychedelics, except for you're not alone. You're not alone in your hallucination. You're right there. And you don't, in VR, definitely in BRC VR, you do not need anything at all. That is a trippy experience in and of itself.

[00:12:15.039] Kent Bye: Yeah, well, I know when I talked to Greg, he was so busy, you know, making this even happen that when I talked to him by like Thursday, he had hardly spent any time in the virtual world at all. I mean, I later he got to obviously, you know, explore around a lot more once things, you know, got launched and settled down a lot and all the fires got put out. But For you, it seems like you had a chance to really immerse yourself into the burn, the burn week within Altspace and Blackrock City VR. So maybe you just kind of take me back to your experience of what the burn was like this year for you as it was happening virtually within Altspace.

[00:12:53.030] Athena Demos: Well, I'm a community organizer. So for me, my job with VRCVR and, or my position, I should say, and my, my need to be there with the community all comes from this community organizer position. So every morning I would wake up early. I'm two hours time zone. I'm in central time zone. So I'm two hours ahead. So I would wake up and reset the dawn. So there was no way for us to set the time of day by the computer clock. It just, for whatever reason, it was more complicated technology than we could accomplish in the short period of time that we had. Because while we did, while Greg set the stage in 2014, it's not like it was done. We had to rebuild it from scratch for 2020, a few times actually, because he kept optimizing it. So it was, everything got done in about a month and a half. All the artists came in, so we had to teach everyone the technology. We had to empower everyone to do it themselves. It was about radical self-reliance, like here's the tools for you to be radically self-reliant. Here's the tools for you to be radically self-expressive. You know, and it was a communal effort. We did this thing called the match game. And actually there's someone else you should interview. You should interview Justin Gunn because he was our director of creator services. So he was really that bridge point between the community of artists and theme camps and sound camps and what they need and the people that wanted to help. the programmers and the modelers and the world builders that were like, how can I get involved? And he brought those together and the dissemination of information to make it happen. So I can connect you to Justin, you should absolutely talk to him because what he did was by far one of the most important jobs as far as the community, bringing the community in. So my job is bringing the community. So every morning I wake up at dawn, which is 8.30 in the morning for me, and I come to my computer and I flip the switch and I turn on dawn. But now I have to go into the world, into VR, so that happens at my computer, and then I go into VR and I have to reset every instance of that is currently on that has avatars in it so that they have the dawn and the buttons on the on the map need to be reset so that the buttons on the map work and those are what teleport you to the man to three o'clock to nine o'clock into the temple and then back to center camp. because the people that are on 2D machines can fly, but they can't fly as fast as the people that are on headsets. And so it's huge, you know, it's seven square miles to scale. So we wanted people to be able to get to the keyholes and get to some of the Esplanade art and get out to the temple and get out to the trash fence a bit faster. So AltSpace helped us and created these buttons specifically for BRCVR. So when I do that, I would then go to the avatars that were there at the spawn point. And you see a lot of people just standing around. People inside of people inside of people. Because they would all spawn into the same place and then they would just stand there and look around. And they didn't know what to do. And so I would go up to people and I would say, hi. Hi. It's live and I'm here and I'm talking to you. Do you need any help with anything? Can I teach you mobility? Can I teach you functionality? Or do you have an understanding? And sometimes they would say something and I'd be like, you can talk and I can talk to you. And it was this realization when I started having a conversation with people that they needed someone to welcome them in. They needed someone on the inside to say, hi, come on into the box. We're here. Come on in, speak to me." And they would speak. And the minute that connection was made, that they would speak to me and I would speak to them, they haven't moved, that was enough. The aha moment would happen. They'd be like, oh my God, wait, you're not a game? And I'm like, no, I'm a real person. And that is a reminder that I've had to give people over and over this weekend, is that we are real people. We're real people inside this avatar. Behind this cartoon character, there's a real human being. And we need to treat those avatars as real human beings, because they are. Our consciousness and our emotional skill set and all of our emotions are right there in that avatar. We have essentially taken our consciousness and our entire soul and put it into this inanimate object. And you can tell when someone has left their avatar behind, we call it a Moopatar. Moop is matter out of place. So a Moopatar is a discarded avatar. You've taken your soul and your consciousness out of the avatar, and it's left behind. So it's like, or it's because you've taken your headset off. And so those are mupatars. And at first, during the week, it was funny. But then we realized it actually has a negative impact on the event, on other people, And it is a violation of leave no trace. You know, I'm always looking for how can the principles apply to the world that we are in. And so I'm developing that right now. And I realized that it is a violation. It's disrespectful of leave no trace to leave your avatar behind. And I'll tell you why. Because every instance can only hold about 30 people. 50 if you're really good, but most of the time it's 30. So if you leave your avatar behind somewhere, that is a slot that someone else cannot come in and enjoy. They can't come in and participate. And if you're at an event and 10 avatars get left behind, which is what happened one morning at Disorient, when I got called in and they were like, what do we do? And there was like one here and one over here and one over here. You know, they're not clumped together. They're not talking. They're individuals standing out alone. And there was nobody there. They were empty. So there was no aura, there was no energy admittance. And that is one third of the vibe. One third of what is going on in that world was dead avatars, was muppetars. So, you know, we contacted Altspace and they told us, you know, how to kick them out so we can send them back to their living room. And I realized that's what we just need to inform people. People don't know. This is, we're learning. So if you want to leave, there's a little button on your radio menu. Most people don't even know it's there. It looks like a little house. Click on the house and it takes you back to your home. Then leave your avatar. You don't have to log out of alt space. You know, it's a long login process. There's a loading, and once you're in, you're in. So a lot of people don't want to log out. I know I don't log out of my headset, but at least log out of the space that you're in. Go back to your home button and then take off your headset or leave it running in the background of your desktop. And that is how you respect leave no trace in virtual reality. So, okay, I'm gonna go backwards and be like, I would connect with the community on a regular basis. Every morning at dawn, every day when I switched to day, and then we had dusk, sunset, and night. So, I was spending a lot of time in VR. And after I would set the buttons, and I was meeting people, and I love teaching people how to fly, I highly recommend anyone who's in BRCVR to spend an hour at the main spawn site and teach people functionality. Because the giggles and the awes and the excitement when you teach someone how to fly for the very first time is worth it. That hour is worth it. I love that. teaching people how to fly. It's like taking them back to their childhood where they thought that they could. They would stand on the edge of their couch and jump off like Superman and run around their living room with a cape. We even gave people wings and they would put them on and immediately fly away.

[00:22:15.975] Kent Bye: Yeah, well, I was able to spend probably around 30 hours within Block Rock City VR over the past week of the burn and just exploring all the different worlds, but also just listening. And for me, it was just fascinating to see these two communities of alt space community with the burner community coming together. And I heard a number of times people say, I didn't think I was going to have a burn this year, but I feel like I was able to get a taste of it or that I had their burn, you know, some people went as far as saying like I had my burn, but I feel like there's something about being able to have these virtually mediated places where people were able to still feel like they had some taste of the experience of the playa absent all of the sandstorms and the physicality and debauchery and different aspects that can only happen in real life and face to face. But just curious, like what your experience was, if you felt like you had a burn experience, it was obviously different. But for you over the course of the week, if you were able to have those moments that really felt like the type of energy and interactions that would have happened on Black Rock City and the playa and Nevada, that you had some of those similar types of experiences and virtual reality.

[00:23:20.379] Athena Demos: Absolutely. Absolutely. Beyond a shadow of a doubt, I had those experiences, those Playa magic experiences that make the burn the burn. They happened. Those moments happened more often and more intensely than I remember them happening on Playa. And I don't know what that was. I feel like society had been, it was a slingshot. So we had been told to socially distance, which by the way, I believe is a misnomer and we need to stop calling it social distancing. It's physically distancing. If you give me a physical distance, it's physically distancing. So we're not socially distancing. We're homo sapiens, and we need to socialize. It is good for mental health to socialize. Not socializing causes mental problems. So we were socially distanced, and it was causing all sorts of problems. And we had pulled back, and all of a sudden, Burning Man happened. And it was like, bing! And everyone just got shoved right back in. And so it was like, What is that machine called? Pachinko machine. You know, those pachinko machines where the ball comes down. I'm dating myself. And you just do do do do do do do do do do do do do do do do do do do do do do do do do do do do do do do do do do do do do do do do do do do do do do do do do do do do do do do do do do do do do do do do do do do do do do do do do do do do do do do do do do do do do do do do do do do do do do do do do do do do do do do do do do do do do do do do do do do do do do do do do do do do do do do do do do do do do do do do do do do do do do do do do do do do do do do do do do do do do do do do do do do do do do do do do do do do do do do do do do do do do do do do do do do do do And they were like, oh, and then they finally got to this point after having this hugely intellectual conversation. Oh, by the way, where are you in the world? And he goes, oh, I'm in Hong Kong. And the other guy is like, I'm in Hong Kong, too. Really? Where in Hong Kong are you? Turns out they were four blocks away from each other, and they were neighbors, and they had never met before. And there they are on top of the man talking about metaphysics and shooting off fireworks. And it was stuff like that that was constantly happening. One of my good friends, Coburn, he had never been in the VR space before and he built like five worlds. He was like so into it. He's like, oh my God, there's all these kits. I can do all these things. I'm going to do all these things. And he loved doing it. so much passion and fervor. So he went to this other world that he absolutely loved. And while he was there, he saw somebody put down a portal to one of his worlds. And he's like, that's my world. He's like, oh my god, I love your world. And I love this one too. And he put down another portal. And it turns out that was Coburn's other world. He had built two worlds. And the guy didn't know that he had built those two worlds. And the two portals he was putting in his space were to Coburn's two worlds. So it was just a coincidence. It's what we call playa magic. And all the connections I made, all the different people I met, and the same is true across the platform. There were romances. I met a couple who met in BRC VR, and they were spending their entire burn week together. And they just met, and they loved hanging out together, and they just wanted to spend more time together, and they've done video calls together, and they're just madly in love with each other, and they want to see where it's going to take them. And they don't live even in the same country, but they can be together at BRCVR whenever they want, and that is their relationship. magic. It's just, it's magic. And it was almost like it was on steroids and acid.

[00:27:05.884] Kent Bye: Well, for me, when I look at Altspace VR, there's a number of technological limitations that are not user friendly, which almost requires you to get instruction from other people. And so it almost encourages that type of community interaction. But the other thing that you do in Altspace is you friend people, and then you can go to where your friends are at. And you can also favorite different worlds and then maybe go to different portals. And then if you go to the popular pages, that is a way for people to dynamically cluster around a world that is getting a lot of attention. And so when you're in a physical place, it's hard to know, like, where is the action happening right now? Where is my friends? And you have to actually locomote through physical space, but in VR, you can actually teleport to different places. And I found that I was making connections to people and able to pop in. I know that I popped into a number of different worlds that you were in because I knew who you were and I friended you and then see where people were at and be able to go to those places to connect to people. And so there was some of that, but there was also just the hey, this is a popular world. Everybody just go there. And then you have this happening, this actual occasion that is this concrescence of people coming together and having these serendipitous collisions and synchronicities. And with the virtual technologies, it was able to facilitate that, especially because this particular community not only had pre-established relationships and trust amongst a community of people that were using it. I think that's a huge part since 1986, the culture of Burning Man, over that length of time and those relationships and those shared experiences, having the simulation of that to be able to help invoke those memories, but also those relationships of people coming in and knowing people that you already know. But there's also people that were meeting each other for the first time because there was a shared context that was established by the 10 principles of Burning Man, which I think are the guiding principle for not only the culture and the community, but also the design aesthetic for each of those worlds to be able to embed those principles into the worlds that were being created. So it created a deeper context for people to come together, which is something that I actually haven't seen happen to that scale anywhere else. So anyway, there's a lot of things that I think that were coming together that were unique that helped facilitate that type of playa magic.

[00:29:16.486] Athena Demos: Yeah, I agree. So being able to hit the go to button and go to that person really drove traffic. Like we realized it come about Friday and we would say, Hey, let's go to a place that doesn't have anybody that we know is cool and hang out there and see how long it takes for everyone to come to it. And so we would, we would be like, okay, there's nobody at Costume Cult and it has a whole bunch of things you can add on to your body, you know, the MREs, the Mixed Reality Extensions, but they were add-on costumes. They were tails, and halos, and clown masks, and unicorn horns, and wings, and then people would go and put them all on. They'd be like, I'm a flying clown unicorn So I went there with a friend of mine who's a costume designer, and she's very interested in creating her Burning Man theme camp, which is the Burner Bazaar, which is actually almost like a thrift store. where everyone brings the clothing that they don't want anymore, the costume pieces that they're not going to wear anymore, to the Burner Bazaar, and then people could come in and get dressed. And then you get dressed up, and you put on an outfit, and then you leave with the outfit on. So it's like you go in as a normal person, and you come out as a Burner. Although at this point in time, Burner is kind of normal. So I took her there, and it was the three of us. It was me and this one other guy that portaled with us. And that's the other cool thing is that you create this disk called a portal, and you open it up, and you take everyone that you want to go. And so it became this train. It was like, I'm opening up a portal. Who wants to come? And you open it up, and you get this little line going to it. So you're connected, and people start connecting to it. And you're like, portal, portal. sometimes in a world you can amplify your voice, and people would amplify their voice, and so it's like God in the world. I'm opening up a portal. If you want to come, we're on our way to Costume Cold. And then everybody runs, flies down like these little bugs around a little moth to a flame, and we all ping to it, and we're like, okay, we're ready. Off we go, and off we go to the loading screen, and then we all pop into a new area, and we're like, is everyone here? Did everyone make it? So it's fun to be like the first person in an area and then all of a sudden you start seeing these people like pop in, you know, and then all of a sudden like a whole bunch of them will pop in. There'll be like one, two, three, and then all of a sudden it's like, poof, a whole like 10 people pop in at the same time. And then it's a party and it's all the people you know and a whole bunch of people you don't. People come up and introduce you to people and you look around and you're like, oh my God, there's like all these people here. And that's Burning Man. And that's very much how Burning Man happens. Except we don't have the convenience of clicking on a button and poof, we're there. We still need to ride our bike across the playa and look for what's shiny and be like, oh, shiny, I'm going to go there. You know, it's like, oh, that thing over there, that's really amazing. And I see specks of people, so I'm going to go over there. With BRCVR, you can just look on a menu and be like, oh, there's 10 people in this room. I'm going to go there. Oh, look, there's five of my friends are at the same place. I'm going to go there. It was so funny on Wednesday. We had a whiteout. At Burning Man, when you have a dust storm and it's so bad that you can't see anything, it's called a whiteout. Well, on Wednesday, we had a whiteout. The playa, we kept adding stuff to the main playa because we had more art. We just didn't have time to get everything added by the time we opened the gates. So we kept adding and adding and adding and we needed to add the keyholes and we started adding the keyholes and we crashed it. But what got left behind was a white room. It was just white. Doug is like, the whole file is gone. It's just gone. It's just white. I'm like, wait, wait, wait. It's just white? He goes, yes, it's just white. You go in there and it's just white. And I'm like, so we're having a whiteout? and he busted out laughing. He was freaked out and he was busting out laughing. I mean kudos to Doug Jacobs and he handled some of the most stressful moments of the entire event and he did it with such grace and empowerment. Like he just handled it. He didn't freak out. He didn't melt down. It was just like, okay, we just got to figure this out. Okay, I just got to solve this problem and figure it out. And he did. And it was amazing. It was amazing to work with him. And it was amazing to watch and just an honor to watch how he took on adversity. But Wednesday, we had this complete whiteout. We didn't know where the file was. We were like, It was like somebody just deleted it. It was like, peek, gone. And we had the AltSpace development team in, and they're trying to find it. And ultimately, we just went back in time. It's Microsoft. And that's one of the things that's kind of nice about Windows, is that it's a constant time machine where it has these backups. So you can just back up to a time. And ultimately, I think that's what we did. We just backed up to a time. And then we were like, don't add anything else to the flyer. Just leave it alone. And so we created the keyhole at three o'clock and nine o'clock and put a whole bunch of stuff in those areas and that created like a new way of being on BRCBR. Like now we have these worlds within the world. So we have BRCVR, the main playa, and the Keyhole is part of the main playa, but we had to create a multiverse of the Keyhole. And in the Keyhole are 10 worlds that go to our projects. And in those worlds are portals that go to other places. It's the multiverse. And with 2020, we are going to open it back up on Saturday, and we're going to add more stuff to it, because there were a lot of people that almost got done, but didn't quite get done, or kind of got their world done, or got completely done, but for whatever reason didn't get added. So we're going to add those so that they are part of the time capsule of 2020. And then 2020 is going to become a portal. It'll stay open as is for a while. We haven't quite figured out dates yet. I'm shooting for that July 4th weekend that we leave it open. And that's our final weekend. And then we take it. We put it in a portal all of 2020 and we clean slate the playa and start over with 2021 and start building out for 2021 and somewhere on the playa will be a 2020 portal. and you can go in and go back in time and experience all the art and all the majesty and everything that exists for 2020 will be there.

[00:36:26.900] Kent Bye: Wow. Well, I wanted to, you know, with the time we have left, I wanted to dive into these 10 principles, because I think they're a pretty key way of setting both the culture, but also the design principles under which that you're creating not only the worlds, but also the interactions at each individual level that can ripple out into the collective behaviors and the culture that you've been able to cultivate since 1986. So in 2004, Larry Harvey wrote these 10 principles to be able to help set those guidelines. And there was a talk that was at the plate alchemist and Christopher Breedlove was talking about how these principles have been evolving over time, even since they were written in 2004. There's been 16 years of evolution with how even those principles have been implemented at Burning Man themselves over those 16 years of growing up to the scale that they have. And, you know, it's a constant. Evolution. And so now this year with the coronavirus and going into the virtual burns on these nine different multiverses that were officially sanctioned. There's gonna be different ways in which those 10 principles have been implemented and what we can learn about those principles in this new context. And I know you've gave a number of talks throughout the week about the 10 principles and through the community discussions, you were able to perhaps distill down some key insights into what's new insights into those principles and how to apply them into a virtual context. So maybe you could quickly go through the 10 and then talk about some of these new insights that you have onto the 10 principles of Burning Man.

[00:37:51.072] Athena Demos: Sure. It's so funny when you're like, maybe you can go through the 10 and I'm like, Do we have time? I do give a talk on the 10 principles and consider it a discussion. Well, I will talk about the principles, but then I want to hear back from the community how it lands for them and ways in which they see the principles applying to their lives in VR and then their lives in the physical realm. So I gave three talks and it helped me solidify the ways in which, because I teach people how to bring the principles into their daily lives. I did a project where every week I would take a principle and I would just hammer it down. Like, what does this mean in my life? What does Leave No Trace mean in my life? And I would pick up trash and I would look at my personal interactions and not leaving emotional baggage on other people. And so I really distilled it down. Well, now I'm in VR and I'm doing the same thing. So as I described earlier with Leave No Trace, those were the Moopatars. And there's other ways as well. It's like cyberbullying is a way of leaving a trace. Harassment and racism in VR is a way of leaving a trace. You don't want to put your garbage on someone else. That is leaving a trace. So in the email that we just sent out about having our closure moment, we talked about honoring Leave No Trace by honoring the putting the playa back to dust. and then we start at dust and we go to dust. But we also talked about the fact that reopening is our civic responsibility and answer to the principle of immediacy. So civic responsibility is a principle and so is immediacy. And civic responsibility is your responsibility to civil society. to producing civil society, and to being within it. And that could be abiding by the laws of an area. And for us in BRCVR, that's the ESRB, which is the rating system for video games. And it is mandated by the FCC, the Federal Communications Commission. And Altspace is rated, in fact, not just Altspace, all VR is rated T for teen. Because they don't want someone younger than 13 in a VR headset. But we need to look at that, and that is something I actually want to start looking at, is that we could get that age lowered because of the number of people that are in VR on their desktop. I understand you shouldn't be in a headset because of the developing brain, but if you're on a PC or a Mac, why can't you sit there on the virtual playa with your five-year-old? We have a lot of children at Burning Man and the Burner kids are amazing. They are so radically self-reliant. They are well adapted for any situation and hugely creative with imaginations that haven't been squashed by the word no. So as we dive more into this, one of the things I want to do, You know, I take things on and then I go, why did I do that? Because I actually would like to propose to the ESRB that maybe that age restriction needs to be addressed. Because I'm not 100% sure. Yes, VR headset, 100%. I'm not 100% sure strapping a computer onto my face is a really good idea with electricity and Wi-Fi and Bluetooth. I don't even like holding my phone up to my face. Now I'm strapping this computer onto my eyeballs, onto my forehead, right next to my prefrontal cortex. Not so sure that's a good idea. So on a five-year-old, on a six-year-old, on a seven-year-old, on a developing brain, probably not a good idea. But on a computer, we're radically inclusive. And to say no one under the age of 13 is not radically inclusive. So radical inclusivity is also why there's a Matt client, because I was with Greg and Doug on the playa and they were introducing me to Alex and Keegan, Alex and Katie Kelly. So Alex Kipman, who's the vice president of Microsoft, and he invented the hollow lens and has been a pioneer and a champion for AR and VR and XR. and then Katie Kelly, who's in charge of Altspace. And this was my first time meeting them. And we're on the playa, 2014, Burning Man, in VR, in Altspace. And we're talking about what we're doing, and this was months ago, back in end of April, beginning of May. And I'm still on a 2D machine. I haven't gotten my headset yet. And they're like, you know, this is so amazing. Whatever you guys need, whatever you need. And I said, we need it to work on Mac. Because if you don't work it on Mac, then you're violating radical inclusivity. It's at least half the communities on Mac. All the Burning Man offices Mac, all of them, the entire organization of the event that we're getting ready to do in VR. So we need them. And then so many artists, so many musicians, It has to happen. And they were like, oh, well, okay. And Alex was the one that was like, you're right. For radical inclusivity, you're right. But I don't know if we can pull it off. And they did the impossible. In less than four months, They created a Mac client. It wasn't great, and not all the worlds had Macified, so people would go in, and it would just be a pink skybox, or these little things would be pink, or this would be black, and they couldn't really see it. But for the most part, I would say the majority of the world's Macified, definitely by the end of the week. That's our word, to Macify something. And we had Mac, and we had PC, and we had VR headsets, and we were all together, and that was radical inclusivity. And, you know, radical self-expression. Everyone took those new avatars that Altspace created. And they were working on those for two years. So those new avatars were in the works before we ever got there. And the eye tracking and the expressions and all that stuff was amazing. You know, and the outfits aren't very burner and the burners did the best that they could with them. But man, we know how to radically express ourselves. And so the purple people and the blue people and the skin tones. And I have a friend of mine who decided to be bright orange, but she wore pink. And I had somebody else who was like this bright yellow color, like the Simpsons. And it was like, oh, We actually could take radical self-expression to this whole new level because we could change who we were. I'll give you an example. Last night, we decided we were all going to have bobbed haircuts. So whatever hair color you had, you just changed it to bob. And we all ran around with the bobbed haircuts. Some of us looked really good, some of us looked really ridiculous. And then we decided we were all going to do Mohawks. So we all just changed it to Mohawks. You go in the menu and you change it to Mohawks. And we took a photo. And so I have a bobbed photo of the entire crew and a Mohawk photo of the entire crew. And we were just all in this picture frame. at Makoto and Eat Me and we were in the picture frame and we got this picture taken and we're all in the same place with our bobs and we're all in the same place with our mohawks. I just kind of wanted to go down and do all the hairstyles but you know it's like herding cats. They were just like and off they go. So we got the two photos and it was hilarious. You can change your hairstyle like that. At Burning Man we put on wigs. You know, we all put on the same color jacket. Disorient, they're porned. They're pink and orange. So they're porned. So you always know the disorient people are running around because they all have orange and pink on. And they're all dressed alike. There was a wedding that happened in alt space. So it wasn't in BRCVR, but it was in alt space, like Friday night. And I saw somebody in all white. And I was like, ooh, I like the all white. I might have to do that. I really like the all white. And he goes, oh, I'm on my way to a wedding. And we're all wearing white. Everyone that's going to the wedding is wearing white. But I stopped by here first. So then he goes to the wedding. So then later on in the evening, I see a crowd of people in all white. And there's the bride and the groom and they have bright blue accents and everyone else is in just all white. And I realized it's the wedding party and they were in BRCVR as the wedding reception running around. That happens at Burning Man. That happens. And so We created a hashtag and we encourage everyone to use it. Hashtag this burn counts. It was just different. The fact that our feet were not standing on the actual dusty Black Rock Desert makes no difference because Burning Man is not about a location. Burning Man is about a community coming together in adversity to experience life and art and creativity and collaboration together. And that's what makes us burners. And the adversity wasn't a dust storm. The adversity was the pandemic. And we all experienced it together. And we all experienced BRCBR together. This burn counts. Hashtag this burn counts.

[00:47:32.991] Kent Bye: So one of the principles is decommodification, which I think- Ah yes, it's a good one. which is probably one of the most tricky ones when it comes to taking what happens in the context of Burning Man, because you pay a ticket, and that's the interface to the existing capitalistic system in order for Burning Man to exist, is that there is some exchange of money to get access to Burning Man. It's not radically inclusive where anybody can come for free. You do have to get there and pay the ticket. But when you go online, then there's a number of different approaches for how to handle that level of how do you actually sustain a project like this and pay for it in that same type of ticketing. In this case, we have what's essentially kind of an in-kind donation from the corporation of Microsoft to be able to gift what they have as a platform to the larger community. But when it comes to radical self-reliance, they're in control. They have their code of conduct in terms of service. It's their servers. And it's not like people are running their own WebXR and Mozilla hubs or something that's decentralized, something that's completely up into the hands of the people. But the state of technology of where VR is at is that even if you tried that, it wouldn't have been as good of an experience as what Microsoft was able to do with the economies of scale of having all that centralized. But at the end of the day, you still have this kind of a weird relationship between what is essentially an in-kind corporate sponsor of Burning Man, this specific Black Ark City VR, but how does that get negotiated with one of the principles of decommodification relative to needing to interface with the wide world now?

[00:49:07.183] Athena Demos: Well, Burning Man has several large financial donors over the years from large corporations. And the way you decommodify it is that the gift, so decommodification and gifting are two of the principles, and they need each other. Gifting needs decommodification in order to be pure, and decommodification needs gifting in order to exist. So Microsoft gifted us. It wasn't an in-kind sponsorship. An in-kind sponsorship means we would have put Microsoft's logo all over everything to say, servers provided by Microsoft. Now there were places where the Microsoft name was. If you went to an event on the web browser, there was a terms of service paragraph about the fact that you're granting Microsoft permission to utilize your photos in whatever way they wanted. And that's because when you take a photo or record a video or whatever, you are doing it on their server. And so much like any company who controls the server, you need to grant them permission in order for your shit to be on their server. So that's what that paragraph was. But because we have the engine of the Burning Man project, they saw that and was like, that's branding. Athena, you need to do something about that. And I was like, ah, you know, they were like, Diplo's branding Burning Man. So I have to go and I have to look at everything and read everything. That's part of my job is that I have to read all the contracts and all the terms of service and all the privacy policies and make sure everything's in alignment. And I did that. I read AltSpace's community standards and terms of service before we brought the community on. And I said to them, you know what? There's a couple things in your terms of service that is not OK with the community. And we worked it out, and we figured out ways in which we could work together. And in BRCBR, we came up with an artist agreement. And we had a licensing agreement with Burning Man to utilize their IP. And they had some stipulations in their agreement. and the terms of use at stipulations in their agreement. So we took those and we created an artist agreement where we were like, you're going to sign and agree to this. And you're going to know upfront everything that these two people, we were like the funnel, we sort of laundered it. And we even tried to white label AltSpace. We asked them if they could take the loading screen and change it so that it didn't say Altspace all over it. And, you know, Altspace, all the heads of Altspace, and I would say the majority of the people that work at Altspace, I don't know if that's true, but it feels that way, are burners and have gone to Burning Man. And a lot of people at Microsoft are burners, and Alex Hittman is, and have gone to Burning Man. So when I say these things, like we need to decommodify, they're like, oh shit, you're right. But Altspace only had enough programmers to do the Mac client. So they were like, decommodification, radical inclusivity. We can do one or the other. We don't actually have enough to create a white label version of our platform. We can white label it or we can give you a MAC client. And I decided, and I talked to Greg and Doug about this too, but ultimately I'm the cultural officer of BRCVR. And I said, you know what? That's fine. This year, we're not going to white label. We're going to look at the possibility moving forward. But I think it's more important to get the majority of the people in. And it's our civic responsibility to provide a place to socialize. It's the immediate need of this social isolation pandemic and the order that we got to stay away from each other. And they barely got the Mac client done. And so now that the event is over and we're going to have a lot of conversations with Altspace and Microsoft and Burning Man moving forward, there's going to be like a gazillion Zoom calls, which makes you a Zoom bee. My friend Alicia came up with that one. We are going to look at white labeling, because I do think that this should be a pure gift. They're not putting their logo on it because they're trying to monetize anything. It's just their logo is there. Like on the radial menu, there's a triangle. It's just there. And they did remove most of the loading cards that were an advertisement to another event. What's there is mainly tips for functionality. You know, it starts out by telling 2D people to wear headsets to have better sound. We should tell everyone to wear headsets because you have better sound and you don't have an echo. So they did what they could in the short amount of time that they had to decommodify as much as possible. So never once did you see BRCVR presented by Microsoft, because that would be commodification. So they gifted us the server space. And they knew that we were getting ready to just cram a whole bunch of people onto their servers. And they didn't know how much server space we were going to need. It was a huge question, actually. Because they were like, how many people do you expect? And we're like, I don't know. They're like, how many MREs are you going to use? I don't know. How much interactivity are you going to have? I don't know. It became like shrug fest. It was like, I don't know. I don't know. I don't know. I don't know. I don't know what our final number is, but as of yesterday at four o'clock, we get our numbers at four o'clock every day. So as of yesterday at four o'clock, we had about 12,400 unique users that had experienced burn week. And, you know, 4 o'clock yesterday, that's pretty much the entirety of the event. From the moment we opened at 8, 12 p.m. on Sunday to 4 o'clock on Tuesday, we had 12,400 something. It was like 486 or something like that. But it was over 12,000 unique users. And then the other number that was really fascinating to me was the number of joins. It's the number of people that came to the main playa. So I'm talking about just spawned into the main playa. It was 90,000. So that means 12,000 people came to the main playa 90,000 times. So they came back and they brought their friends and they came back and they brought their friends and their friends brought friends, which is Burning Man, which is exactly how Burning Man happens.

[00:55:54.930] Kent Bye: Well, there's two other principles that kind of go together that I just want to call out, which is the radical self-reliance and then the communal effort, which in some sense, if you just put those together, they seem almost opposite. But in the desert, you have to be completely self-reliant, but you also have to rely upon the community. And then there's the participation. And so maybe we could cover those last three, which is sort of the relationship between the radical self-reliance, communal effort, and participation.

[00:56:20.893] Athena Demos: OK, with radical self-reliance, we have been forced into radical self-reliance. When you're in isolation in your home, you have to buy a week's worth of food and be able to take care of yourself. You don't have your community around you that you can rely on. So we are forced into radical self-reliance. We also have to be emotionally self-reliant. Our emotional state is our own responsibility now. And so we're experiencing loneliness on this epic level. And we're reaching out in Zoom calls, but the visceral connection of being next to someone isn't there on this 2D computer. There is something incredibly compelling about being in VR. and having that connection with someone, eye gazing. Even though they're cartoon eyes, the soul is behind it. We are putting our consciousness into this thing. VR allows our consciousness to wander. We do that with meditation. I meditate every day. and I open up my mind and my periphery and my awareness and I let my mind wander. In VR, it's like a lucid dream where my body just sits. And sometimes when I am in VR, I sit in that same meditative position and I just, and I go and I explore. So you meet people in that space and that is creating connection. So, In VR, radical self-reliance is you need to take care of your physical body while your consciousness wanders. And that is radical self-reliance. And what that looks like is you need to drink water. There is a weird thing that happens when you're in VR. It's dehydrating. I don't know why that is, but if I spend like two or three hours in VR, I am insanely thirsty after Burn Night. I was up all night long. I woke up in the morning and I was like... And I thought to myself, this is exactly how I feel after a Burn Night. So you have to drink enough water. We also say hour in, hour out. So if you have an hour in VR or an hour with your screen, have an hour out. So if you spend five hours in VR, give yourself five hours out of VR. That is self-care. That is taking care of yourself. That is making yourself radically self-reliant so that you can participate in the communal effort that is BRCBR. And the communal effort is being in VR. If you take care of your physical self, then you can be in and connect and help build. So now you can learn these new technologies because you've taken care of yourself. You can participate with an artist, or maybe you're the artist, and you get together with a world builder and a modeler, and you create something amazing for the entire community to play in. Everyone's creating these inspiring playgrounds that allows our minds to go, what next? Like this was exciting? But oh my god, I cannot wait for 2021. That is going to be mind-blowing. That one, I've already talked to people that are like, oh, this is what I'm going to do next. We call it sophomore syndrome. Sophomore syndrome is when you've gone to Burning Man once, And before the week is even over, you're like, next year, I'm going to, next year, and then next year, and then next year, and that bouncing. And I watched people bouncing in their avatars. That is sophomore syndrome, where now this next year, you just got to do something. You've got to create something. Everybody this year, we call them VRgins. V-R-G-I-N. So everybody this year at VRCVR was a VRgin. I don't care how much of an old crusty burner you were, this is your year one because you had to learn VR. And if you were a VR person and you came in from the VR, then you're brand new to Burning Man. If you were VR and you were a burner, you hadn't experienced VR Burning Man, so you're still a first-timer. So everybody, when they first came in, was a VR-gen. So everybody, the entire population of 12,000-some-odd people, are now experiencing sophomore syndrome. and they all want to create something and you know for these three and a half days that we are just in the dust and a lot of worlds went dusty a lot of worlds didn't go dusty so there's plenty to experience but i have heard a lot of people say i'm taking these three and a half days and i'm learning world building i'm going to set up a world i'm going to get the kits and i'm just going to play with it i'm going to see what's possible and then i'm going to push those boundaries And that is their participation. So arriving and just taking on the learning curve of technology was a way of participating. Everyone working together to create all those manuals. We had all sorts of community members that would just send us things. It'd be like, here's a PowerPoint presentation of an info guide of how to get on from a 2D machine. Here's one for Mac. Here's one for headsets. Here, I created this video. I made this entire. 35 page document of how to produce an event from making your world all the way to making an event. And we didn't ask these people to do it. They would send it to us. It'd be like, how, what do you think of this? It's like Swan created a video to describe all eight of the universes and how to get into them and what they are. Nobody hired her to do it. She just did it because it was the immediate need of what the community need so we could come together in communal effort and participate in being radically self-expressive and radically self-reliant burners. on a platform that was gifted to us, because all the other universes, their biggest problem was how are they going to pay for their servers. And we were on a platform that was already free. So it's not like Microsoft gave us something, it's already free. Altspace was already free. It was already available for the community to play on. So we just added to that. And Microsoft came up to the task. They gave us a gift and we needed more of the gift than what they originally gave us. So they gave us more. And Altspace as well. We needed the Altspace programmers to be on call. Really, we needed the development team to be on call because we were breaking shit. They did an update pretty much every day. Every single day when you signed on, you were notified that there was another update. They were constantly updating the program for how many people we were having in the space. The burn, watching the burn, was over 1,500 people. watching the burn at one time with 30 people in an instance at a time. Now what is that 60 instances? And the whole time we were watching it you were like in your space and there was like these glitches. You know you'd turn your head and it would be like and you would talk to somebody. So it forced you to be like really focused on a person because if you moved your head too much it was like And it was the servers going, and someone told us that we cooked a server. Like we might not have burned the man, but we burnt the man. You know? In VR, as a collective communal effort, we burned a man and it took all of us together, not some program, it took us physically being together on the same server at the same time to burn. And that is the ultimate form of communal effort.

[01:04:43.444] Kent Bye: Wow, that's just so amazing. As somebody who's been in VR for six and a half years, I've never been to Burning Man and always really wanted to go, but never just had the logistics sort of lined up. And so I did feel like this was my first burn, VR virgin burn in that sense. And that you're right. It is a bit of a reset in that way. So it's nice to be participating in something that was the first iteration, but yeah, just to kind of wrap things up here. I'm just curious, like what you think the ultimate potential of virtual reality might be and what it might be able to enable.

[01:05:14.045] Athena Demos: Right now, virtual reality is filling an immediate need. The community needs to be together. We come together in little tiny social gatherings, and concerts, and sporting events, and we're used to coming together. Music festivals, and we come together, and we meet people, and ideas are shared, and there's this mixing and mingling of ideas, of creativity, of thoughts. And it's a way in which we maintain the web of global consciousness. And because of the pandemic, we've had to shut that engine down. And so the web, and when I say web, I mean just the web of global consciousness, not the web of the internet. The web of the global consciousness was rattling. And social VR and BRC VR, that rattling came back together and we were able to share those ideas. We were able to meld and come together and have conversations. And that is the immediate need to keep that web going. And now it's actually happening on the web directly. So I think that's going to continue. the people meeting people, but now it's all over the world from their living rooms. It opens up the ability, like one of the most beautiful things about Burning Man is randomly going to some theme camp, sitting down, meeting somebody, finding out all these fascinating things about them, learning. There's nothing more mind expanding than learning something, anything. learning something, sharing ideas, and then you find out from that person after where they are or what they did. Like nobody asks you what's your job at Burning Man. Nobody cares. They just care about who you are and who you are in the world. So that's going to continue. But the art that is going to be created is like nothing that I even want to try and conceptualize. Someone else is going to do that, and I am going to be in complete awe. And I am ready for it. I love the state of awe and new. The state of awe and new is mind expanding. It's the moment, that moment. And you get these little spurts of hormones when you have that. And it prevents depression to have that awe and that new and that childlike, this is fantastic. And we need that. That is what we're getting ready to get in spades. I already know it. I've already talked to some artists. They've already told me their ideas and I can't even imagine or conceptualize, but anything you can hallucinate, you can create in BRCBR.

[01:08:13.589] Kent Bye: Great, is there anything else that's left unsaid that you'd like to say to the broader immersive community or burner community?

[01:08:20.471] Athena Demos: I do. I came to the realization as I was looking at my friends in their VR persona, in their avatars. And I realized that those avatars, it's the same face shapes, you know, there's set body shapes, there's set face shapes, set eye shapes, and you just pick and mix and match. But for some reason, people look like they're avatars. Even when they're purple or green or orange, they look like they're avatars. Like, why does that person look like they're avatar? It's because they're their avatars. We put our personalities and our souls and our consciousness, we are talking through, there might not be a whole bunch of expression, but we're expressive. We're just expressive people. And whether you believe in auras or whatever, it's there. And they might be cartoon characters, but you still have to respect them as people. And we need to be respecting each other as people. We are each an individual person, and it requires an amount of kindness and respect. And every interaction you have with someone, whether an avatar or otherwise, should be treated as if it is the very last time you are ever going to see that person. Because in this day and age, with the pandemic and all the environmental disasters and murder hornets, I had dust storms and fire tornadoes and murder hornets and red tide, and I just got to a point where I just can't keep track of everything. It was like there was a joke that the Bermuda Triangle was going to be like a Roomba and just go around the globe and just start making things disappear. It's like, I don't know. But if we can all be more respectful and kind towards each other, then we can shift from society to humanity. Because right now, we're a society of homo sapiens. We're our animal selves. But we're starting to notice. We're noticing that we're being mean toward each other. We're noticing that we want more kindness. And that noticing that comes from the self-isolation, the social isolation that society is having to do, is making us a little bit more aware of the world around us. In order for us to evolve and become human beings, we like to call ourselves human. We're not. We're not human yet. Because what does it mean to be a human being? It means that we're humane. A human being is a humane being and a humane being treats other things, other people, other everything within their space with kindness and respect. And I see that happening right now. We are at that turning point. And being able to put your consciousness into an avatar changes the dynamic of how we are present towards each other. We almost have to be more present because our avatars aren't completely us. but they are close enough and our consciousness is there. So we are more kind and we are more respectful or we are completely the opposite and we are cyber bullies and we are harassing and racists. And I see that happening in the physical world and exponentially in the virtual world. And we are at that turning point. So I challenge everyone. How are you a homo sapien? And how are you a human being? And it is your choice on how you want to be in the world, whether it's virtual or physical.

[01:12:36.133] Kent Bye: Wow. Well, Athena, I just wanted to thank you for all the stuff that you've been doing with Burning Man since 1999, as well as getting involved with the Blackrock City VR. I really see that this is a pretty significant turning point in terms of the multiverse of what was put together being some template as we move forward to inspire what in the VR community we refer to as the metaverse, this vision of these interconnected worlds across different platforms and I think we got a good taste of what that metaverse might look like within the context of one platform. And I think it's going to inspire a whole new generation of VR creators and artists to use the immediacy of VR, what it can provide for people, and to hopefully, you know, create a lot more wonder and awe. I've certainly, just to walk into that seven square mile virtual reality recreation of the playa that was optimized for the quest, I was like, what, this shouldn't be possible. What, who did this? And what's the story behind this? Cause that it's really quite remarkable that that was even possible. And so I love all the ways that you were able to push the limits and break the technology and burn the servers as well as the man. But yeah, just a, an amazing, you know, event that you're able to pull off. And I, I respect the fact that it's going dark and to relaunch. And I hope that, you know, we'll see what kind of iteration cycle that stays, if it's going to be yearly or monthly or quarterly, whatever that ends up being. it's going to be a process of people wanting to make and create and share their gifts with each other in a way that I'm really just excited to see where it all goes. So thanks again for helping make this even possible and to take the cultural DNA of Burning Man and not only be radically inclusive as to share it to the world, but also a lot of those things that you're changing the DNA of Microsoft itself. And so, you know, that'll be interesting to see where that all goes as well. So that's a significant shift as well. So Yeah, again, just thank you for all that you've done. And, um, I'm excited just to see the VR community and the Burning Man community as they come together, what they're able to create. So thank you.

[01:14:32.064] Athena Demos: You're welcome. You're very welcome. Yeah. At the core of my being, I'm a muse. I believe, and I feel in the core of my being that I was put on this planet to inspire creativity and to do so fuels my soul. And to be at the precipice of this change and to be where I am right now is perfection.

[01:14:59.073] Kent Bye: Awesome. Well, thank you so much.

[01:15:01.176] Athena Demos: Thank you.

[01:15:02.527] Kent Bye: So that was Athena Deimos. She's the chief cultural and community officer for Blackrock Creative and Blackrock City VR. So I've had a number of different takeaways about this interview is that, first of all, well, I was talking to some people from VRChat and RecRoom who had dropped by Burning Man and AltSpace, and their reactions were kind of like, meh, you know, we're doing a lot of this type of stuff already in RecRoom and VRChat. And if you look at just purely the technological implementation, then For sure, there's a lot of stuff that's happening within VRChat and RecRoom that far exceeds anything that I saw at Burning Man this year. But I think the difference is, what Athena says, is that Burning Man is not a location. It's not a place. It's not about the art and the virtual representations of that. She said, Burning Man is about a community coming together in adversity to experience life, art, creativity, and collaboration together. So if you just focus on the artifacts and the objects rather than the relational dynamics, I think then you may be missing at least part of the experiences that I got from Burning Man this year, which was happening during Burning Man. I was connected to different people, which allowed me to pop into different locations throughout the week and to just be in different places and then to run into people and have these different collisions and strike up these conversations that were actually quite interesting and meaningful. And so for me, a big takeaway is the way in which that the culture and the community and the trust and relationships that were already pre-existing ahead of this virtual Burning Man that happened in Black Rock City VR and Altspace and these other locations as well, but especially within the Altspace VR community, because that was the only real social VR manifestation where you could really have a full embodiment within VR and be able to run into people and to talk to people. and to really use the affordances of virtual reality itself, above and beyond the other implementations of the multiverse that were, I would say, more 2D representations within a virtual world context and environment. But this was a lot different in the sense that it was really focusing on the relational dynamics and the people that you're connected to. Once you start to friend people and commit to being there and popping in between the different worlds, that certainly happens in VRChat as well. But I think the difference here was that there was something different about the consistency of the design aesthetic, where Greg Edwards had created this toolkit that had these common assets, and so there's like a baseline of what people were putting all their art and everything else within this context of a desert in the Black Rock City. And there's some worlds that deviated from that and kind of went off into this total virtual representation. But to me, the real power was to be going in between many of these different worlds. I probably saw over 150 different worlds of the 200, and I made a list of my top 40. And so of that, there was about 20% of all the stuff that was there that I think was really interesting and provocative. And then talking to Athena, she's like, that's kind of like Burning Man as well. There's going to be a mix of stuff that really resonates with you and other stuff that doesn't. So just the fact that all of those worlds were created around the same time within the last couple of months and all launched as a cohesive experience where you could go in between them. And it was a little bit of a scavenger hunt of trying to find the ones that really resonated. And then that ended up being, once you found those, then you could take your friends and people to these different worlds. Again, this is no different than what's already happening in VRChat and RecRoom. But I think one of the other differences was that there was not a lot of people within AltSpace that are doing this type of world building. the world's is in beta and so you have to enable the world's beta which means that whenever you have just a handful of people anywhere from 5 to 10 to 20 people within the world then it would show up on the popular tab anything like vr chat is so big and so well established that there really isn't what is the hottest world that's happening right now And because Burning Man was pretty much the only game in town for what was really happening on Altspace at that time, then if there was a trending world, then it was going to be something that was likely related to the Burning Man, Black Rock City world. But just the fact that there was like this ongoing, like, okay, what is the hottest world that's happening right now? You were able to get that type of clustering dynamic. And so if you look at, you know, how could you actually apply that to VRChat to get a little bit more focused and niche because VRChat is so large that it gets lost in terms of like what is emerging right now in the moment. There are popular worlds, but that's if it reaches a certain threshold of stuff that the entire community of VRChat is interested in. The thing about the Black Rock City VR was that it was extremely focused and niche on just these worlds and being able to really dynamically bubble up those popular worlds. And so in talking with Athena, I was really struck by her talking about this concept of the playa magic or the serendipity or playadipity. This is typically what Jung would call synchronicity. So anytime when you have some sort of internal state that is happening within your body is then reflected into some sort of external manifestation of that. So as an example, if you're thinking about someone calling you and then someone calls you, that would be an example. Or if you're like really ruminating on a problem that you're trying to solve and then somebody just comes up and provides you the answer. that is like the type of synchronicities that happen in your life, but especially on the playa, you're locomoting through space and you're deciding where to go and then you end up at a place and you end up having a collision that leads to some sort of meaningful interaction that could be reflective of some deeper thing that you're either trying to manifest or intend or a problem that you're trying to solve. You know, the mechanisms of that type of serendipitous collision is something that I do quite a lot within Voices of VR podcast where I would go to these different conferences and then roam the hallways looking for people to either talk to and do an interview or have this collaboration where I was able to achieve something that I couldn't do on myself. Finding somebody else who has a similar intention and meeting up and you'll be able to actually manifest whatever we're trying to do together. Whether that's trying to solve a problem or get a question answered or for me it's just to do an interview and help document the evolution of VR. And everything has gone into these virtual conferences. It's those types of serendipitous collisions that I think have been really difficult to try to have. You almost have to design the experience from the ground up to try to cultivate those different types of interactions. And I think the thing to me that was so interesting about Burning Man is that of all the different virtual conferences that I've seen, it was able to achieve that better than anything else that I've seen. So you think about like on conferences or the birds of a feather gatherings at a conference or just meetups, I think you start to get some of those different types of dynamics as well as you get people focused together and really use the affordances of VR to be able to like have a kind of cocktail party element where you're being able to move around and be able to have these different conversations and have those different types of serendipitous collisions that otherwise are really difficult to have like on a Zoom call when there's like Hundreds of people or that can really only be like one conversation or if you break out to break out conversations Then you have no real agency to be able to direct yourself in between these different conversations And so you have to be directed there by a moderator So there's just all these things where the translation of these different types of interactions that used to happen at conferences just haven't really been prioritized when it comes to these teleconference platforms, but I argue that it's also a deeper philosophical shift where most people want to think about conferences. They think about, oh, it's just about the talks and the content that we're going to be delivering to the talks. When for me, it's a lot about the relational dynamics that happen from actually being co-located, but people that have a shared context and a shared intention. And I think that with Burning Man and the Black Rock City VR, I was able to see that. And what is it about that? I think a big part is the existing relationships, the context that they were able to have there with a shared set of values, with these 10 principles. of Burning Man, which is radical self-reliance, radical self-expression, immediacy, gifting, decommodification, leaving no trace, civic responsibility, communal effort, radical inclusion, and participation. So these are the high-level principles and values that are, in some ways, independent of context, trying to apply these into all different parts of someone's life. And so, just as an example, Athena was talking about leaving no trace, where the initial mundane interpretation of that is that you just don't leave any trash around, and that When you come in, you try to leave the land exactly as it was as you came there. So you're just trying not to leave any footprint onto the actual playa of Black Rock City. But there's also other ways that you can apply leaving no trace, whether it's in your personal interactions and looking at your personal relationships and things like harassment or cyberbullying or racism leaves elements of a trace. These are like higher level virtues and principles that could be applied to all different contexts of your life. And so part of the thing that I think is interesting about what happened with Burning Man and the Black Rock City VR is that they have these sets of principles and they're trying to like translate them into like, how does this manifest within a virtual representation of Burning Man? And to what degree are we able to really live into all these other aspects of Burning Man and to be as radically inclusive as they can be? Meaning they're trying to think about things like the ESRB restrictions of no one under the age of 13 or encouraging Microsoft to build a Mac client so that they can get even more of their community involved within this experience. And for me, the big dynamic is this tension between the decommodification, the gifting, the fact that Microsoft was able to be so involved with this and to really try to live into the values of decommodification and to be able to provide this as a gift. And, you know, it's already a free service. And so to that extent, they're able to already be providing it. And from their perspective, this is a community that's coming in to really stress test their existing infrastructure and architecture. And if it falls down, that means that they've been able to discover ways to make it better in the future so that it can even scale to bigger communities and events. I mean, there's 1,500 people at the burning of the man. But that whole relationship, I think, is very interesting. I actually did an interview with Katie from Microsoft, really unpacking this unique relationship between Burning Man, BlackRock Studio VR, and Microsoft, because I think that's one of the more intriguing aspects of this whole experience was the degree to which the Burning Man community and BlackRock Studio VR were we're putting forth a lot of these specific values and looking at the terms of service and looking at the different artists' agreements and trying to figure out how do we really create a context where this is as much as possible decommodified and to be able to have this gifting context. So another aspect of Burning Man is that there's an existing cadence of rituals that happen at Burning Man. The Burning of the Man is the ritual that happens each year and they actually had a live stream of an actual effigy of a man, like a small version being burnt somewhere in Nevada. It was a live stream across all these different people and they had a live video, live stream of the Burning of the Man. And then they had the virtual burning in the man, which I'll talk to Jennifer Brooks, AKA Nira about that as well, because there was parts of that that worked for some people and didn't work for other people. And there's a whole backstory for how that came about and how that went. And we'll be diving into that aspect of the story with her, but to hear Athena say that, that there was actually kind of like the burning of the servers as it was melting down, then it was kind of like the metaphoric burning in the man. So just a couple other things, the fact that there was the changing of the time to have the zeitgeibers reflecting the dawn, middle day, evening, and night. So there's different skyboxes and colors that had a day version and a night version within the Burning Man and Black Rock City VR. So you had this similar cadence of the ritual, depending on when you went in there, it was going to reflect the actual time of the day. And that was something that wasn't programmed, and so Athena had to actually go and do that manually. And then one of the other interesting things that came up was this concept of a Moopitar, the matter out of place atar. So these are the discarded avatars that as people take off their headset, you kind of have this trace of a person that can be quite disruptive. I know that VRChat has a whole AFK that automatically senses this, and it has a meditative prose that gets implemented so that people are kind of meditating there. So you know that there's no one actually there within that avatar. And as people go into these different instances, if they start to take off their headset and just leave it there, then they could be left there in that not only takes up a spot, but also is disruptive to the overall aesthetic and other people's experiences. So I guess as I talk to other people who are embedded into all these different virtual worlds and Rec Room and VRChat, and they compare what they saw at Altspace, you know, for them, there was nothing different from what they've already seen. And, you know, in talking to other people from Second Life, I get this argument all the time that things that I say are new or different are not really necessarily new or different when it comes to virtual worlds in general. And what is it about the virtual reality aspect that makes it new or different? Or what is it about the Burning man being in VR versus you know anything else that's happening in VR. What is unique and different and for me I just had an experience where I was able to be connected to be in relationship and to have some of those Serendipitous collisions and for me, you know, I've just barely been focusing on that specifically like what does it take to really have a good online gathering and have these meaningful interactions and connections and I I think they were able to achieve that with the Burning Man and Alt Space and Black Rock City VR. And certainly that is not unique. It happens all the time. And so for me, I guess I'm left with, is this something that was just a personal experience for me that was so revelatory? Or is this something that is more generalizable and universal for everybody? It's harder to make that universal argument. And I guess the final point is just this concept of your consciousness being embedded into an avatar. What's it mean to have the essence of you being radiated out into this world? And Athena was talking about how people really look like they're avatars. You know, we have our existing experiences of people and what they look like and how they move their body. And so as we see these virtual representations of people moving their body, then it actually invokes these memories and there's this weird fusion of our experiences of people and embodied, co-located, physical representations of them and also these virtual representations of them. And we're kind of like mashing those two things together of this high level stylized cartoon version of someone, but also like our actual embodied experiences with them. And as those come together, then it feels like the essence of someone is being communicated through the technology. And what's it mean to have someone's consciousness there is to remember that there's people on the other side. And Athena says, you know, just try to remember to treat other people with respect and love and care and that there's another person on the other side of that and that this may be the last time you ever have an interaction with them. And so you want to just try to have right relationships as you engage with people and not going around and leaving traces and whatever that means, whether it's harassment or cyber bullying or whatever else that you're trying to leave no trace in that sense. So, anyway, that's all that I have for today, and I just wanted to thank you for listening to the Voices of VR podcast. And if you enjoy the podcast, then please do spread the word, tell your friends, and consider becoming a member of the Patreon. This is a listener-supported podcast, and so I do rely upon donations from people like yourself in order to continue to bring you this coverage. So you could become a member and donate today at patreon.com slash voicesofvr. Thanks for listening.

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