I found myself on a virtual bus, driving in the dust. My avatar, and a few others, hopped around. Outside, in the sand, there were bikers. These bikers were real people: it was a 360-degree video. They stopped moving as the clip ended. For a few moments, I felt like I was at Burning Man, a festival I've never attended. I was getting a tour of BRCvr's Re-Burn 23, a farewell to a virtual space in Microsoft's AltSpaceVR, which is happening this weekend.
BRCvr is a group that's been creating portals and memories of real-life Burning Man moments throughout the pandemic. I've attended its annual virtual burns for the last three years. The free social experiences were some of the highlights of my time spent inside with nothing but laptops, game consoles and VR headsets. But BRCvr's universe, hosted inside Microsoft's AltSpaceVR app, is disappearing soon. That's because Microsoft is shutting down AltSpaceVR and all its worlds permanently in March, part of thousands of layoffs including many in the company's VR and AR teams. Burning Man was a common connection between AltSpaceVR's founder Gavin Wilhite and former Microsoft AR/VR lead Alex Kipman, and the virtual burns were sources of experimentation for Microsoft's tech, including a live concert with 3D-scanned artists.
BRCvr's founders, Athena Demos and Doug Jacobson, spoke to me over Zoom and also in their builds of new spaces being shared over the weekend. The spirit, despite the founders' exasperation with Microsoft's lack of support for AltSpaceVR's artists, is one of forward-looking celebration. The goal isn't to end things, but to look forward to what's going to be built next and where it will be.
"We found out about it in early December, because we've been building for Microsoft in AltSpace -- when they told us, we were like, 'what's gonna happen to all of your worlds?'" Demos explains. "They want to focus all their efforts on Mesh," Demos says, referring to Microsoft's cross-platform avatar technology that is still being fleshed out, while in the meantime, longtime mixed reality and VR/AR teams are being discarded, along with the worlds they made.
It's a stark reminder that virtual worlds don't last forever, and that the future of whatever everyone's trying to call "the metaverse" is still in flux. In the meantime, though, BRCvr is throwing a final virtual burn celebration this weekend to remember what's been and think about what's next.
A celebration, an end, an evolution
According to Demos, much of BRCvr's work can be salvaged and used elsewhere. But that's not true for all artists. Some who used AltSpaceVR's kits to create their work can't export their creations at all, leaving the art trapped inside AltSpaceVR and doomed to destruction. It's a cause of artist heartbreak and a cause for concern: If social worlds want us all to build lives in these new universes, then we need to be able to control how we take our creations out again, and prevent them from being lost to the whims of big tech.
Demos is optimistic of the progress yet to come: "I think that all these layoffs are going to cause a bunch of little companies to form, a bunch of little projects to form, a bunch of new technology to be made. And this is going to be like a boom -- probably in like, two or three years, all of a sudden it's going to be like, 'where did all this shit come from?'" In the meantime, though, it's sometimes a scramble to invent solutions to bridge in new ideas.
BRCvr's previous expansive layouts in AltSpaceVR included a map of the Burning Man's playa that mirrored the real space, with portals and experiences embedded throughout. This time, the social hub is smaller but leads out through portals to virtual spaces where immersive video has been layered in. For the first time, I'm now seeing bubbles of 360-degree video showing me what last year's actual Burning Man festival was like. I step inside a virtual bar, and suddenly inside I see the actual bar and the real people who were there. I enter a half-dome cage where people battle -- the Thunder Dome -- and for a few moments I forget that I can just float back out again.
Some exhibits, like a circular room full of doors, each of which lead to a particular personal tarot card reading, are recreations of Burning Man installations. Others are photogrammetry scans, 3D objects with realistic photo details mapped onto them. Some are 360-degree video bubbles. Already, it feels more full of moving memories than previous BRCvr virtual burns.
Virtual places like these act as living memories to events that eventually go away. But this time, even these memories are disappearing for the moment. It's oddly poetic, considering one of Burning Man's, and BRCvr's, founding tenets is "Leave No Trace." In this case, thanks to AltSpaceVR being dismantled, that will actually be the case.
But eventually, these virtual destinations can and should be mirrors of real-world places, additions and extensions. Demos and Jacobson are working to solve that, one scan and video at a time. Maybe eventually, these virtual worlds and the real ones will feel truly co-present, on platforms and software creations yet to come, and I can't wait to be part of it when it happens.
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