Taking Burning Man to the Net's masses

With the help of Google Earth, Burning Man envisions offering fully 3D, immersive versions of each year's event. Images: Burning Man Earth

Daniel Terdiman Former Senior Writer / News
Daniel Terdiman is a senior writer at CNET News covering Twitter, Net culture, and everything in between.
Daniel Terdiman
4 min read
If you went to Burning Man this year and didn't get a chance to see that one great art piece everyone was talking about, the event's organizers and Google may have a solution.

By leveraging the open-endedness and utility of Google Earth--the search giant's 3D mapping and visualization tool--Burning Man is embarking on what it's calling "Burning Man Earth." The project's creators envision that eventually they will be able to offer fully 3D versions of each year's event in the Black Rock desert, and in the process give participants a way to connect with the makers of art pieces and theme camps so that members of the community can learn from each other and extend the event's reach across the world.

Burning Man Earth

"We'll be creating a map of the constellation of (each) year's (Burning Man)," said Larry Harvey, Burning Man's founder and director. "It doesn't simply provide you with a vicarious spectacle, but rather a blueprint of the community itself in its most active manifestation."

For Google, the Burning Man project is one example of what can be done with Google Earth, the company's recently acquired Sketchup 3D modeling tools and an active imagination.

Indeed, there is no end to the projects third parties have undertaken using Google Earth. Some of the best of them, in fact, are cataloged by a Swedish blogger named Stefan Geens on the site Ogle Earth.

Among them are a new project from the United Nations Environment Program that lets users see environmental "hot spots" and crisis zones on a map and compare them to a map of untouched Earth, and one that highlights outbreaks of avian flu on a world map.

"I love the way in which scientists have taken to Google Earth as a visualization tool (and) also to make their data much more widely available than before," Geens said. "Take, for example, meteorite databases, or volcano layers, or recent earthquakes or scientists who have put all the data of ocean buoys online live. These things are obviously best viewed from the perspective of an atlas, and Google Earth is a kind of ultimate atlas."

What makes it possible for organizations like Burning Man, or any of the dozens of other teams that have worked on custom uses for Google Earth, to do so is what is known as KML, or Keyhole Markup Language. KML is named after Keyhole, the company Google bought that provides its satellite data. The language stores "geographic features such as points, lines, images and polygons for display in Google Earth, Google Maps and Google Maps for mobile," according to Google.

'Preserved in amber'
So rather than just providing Burning Man participants with a static 3D map of the event, Harvey and the Burning Man Earth team envision a fully immersive environment that he is calling a "map of (Burning Man's) cultural genome."

"It will be possible to walk down the 30 miles of streets that comprise (Black Rock City) and range through the open playa and when you encounter a three-dimensional rendition you'll be able to knock on the door of the creators. And, it being Burning Man's culture, they'll open their door and you'll be able to contact them through their URL or their e-mail address."

Given Burning Man's intertwined history with technology, particularly the Internet, it makes a lot of sense that the organization's leaders would embrace innovative technology like Google Earth.

Once Rod Garrett--who designs the layout of Black Rock City each year for Burning Man--and a team of four others began talking to Google, the search company provided access to tools that allowed the team to begin creating custom KML content.

"The Burning Man organization has some very technically savvy developers and the community is very creative," said Peter Birch, Google Earth's project manager. "They have some very interesting ideas about building a virtual community, and we love it when our users think of new and exciting ways to share content with Google Sketchup and Google Earth."

As Garrett and his team--which includes project manager Andrew Johnstone, who built Virtual Playa, an earlier 3D participatory rendition of Black Rock City based on Microsoft Flight Simulator--move forward, they plan on creating a d new version based on each year's Burning Man.

That's important, since it would be difficult to place art pieces or theme camps from different years' events on a single version.

And to Harvey, the ability to create different versions for each year is one of the advantages of using a product like Google Earth for this project.

"Every year will be preserved in amber," he said, "and people will be free to go back" and discover or rediscover art or other artifacts from years past.