Mad Dash to the Finish Line of Virtual Build Week at BRCvr

It’s technically been years in the making, but with burn week upon us it’s also time to finalize 3D models, particle effects, and interactions from dozens of theme camps participating in the BRCvr virtual world, as part of the globally-connected virtual Burning Man.

It’s “D Lot” Purgatory — Trapped on Gate Road Before BRCvr Opening

BRCvr is one of several different universes connecting the first-ever online-only Burn. The founders Greg Edwards, Athena Demos and Doug Jacobson were digital forerunners who started their virtual playa project way back in 2014 (and I happened to connect with them shortly afterwards when I found their Kickstarter after a search for VR burn builds).

Fun fact: Second Life has also been running an officially-sanctioned Regional in their digital world since 2001, and they will do so again this year as one of the *eight* official universes — in addition to their regularly-scheduled regional in October. Wow. A few of these universes really have their stuff together, while several others are lagging behind in timelines-are-fluid, volunteer-led teams.

This is the first time in Burning Man history that the in-person Burn with a capital B is not happening. By the looks of it, though, there will be no shortage of content to entertain all of the home-bound techy Burners, ready to embark on a digital pilgrimage to the virtual playa.

I’m even taking the opportunity to host radically-inclusive Zoom calls giving virtual tours to my family and friends who are less tech-inclined, and people who are Burner-curious.

Below are some details of camps that I am personally involved with during build week, and is in no way an exhaustive list of experiences that will be available.

Esplanade Camp: Kostume Kult

Costume Jim has big vision to be a part of as many of the different Burning Man universes as possible. He asked me to come in as a technical project manager for BRCvr. This week, we made a plan to revise the existing lowpoly and highpoly assets, as well as experiment with some new interactive ideas to really test the capabilities of the platform. As Jim tells me, their home base of NYC is really good at theater. Music to my ears!

It’s difficult to do avatar attachments in AltSpace, so we are doing some clever new things to give people a real Kostume Kult experience in VR. I don’t want to spoil any surprises, but I can say that we will be experimenting with photo capturing and photo sharing, as well as virtual mazes, and of course some audio/streaming for parties. Once we get through our first deadline I will start consulting and helping user test some of these fun things. For now, I’m ensuring that file names and specifications are met for us to be included on 4 o’clock & Esplanade: a highly-visible placement at the Burn.

Access the world in AltSpace by saving to your favorites from the web first:

The Frontage on Playa with NYC Skyline, Runway, Blinky LEDs and More // Gearóid Dolan
Low-Poly Frontage for the BRCvr Map // Modeled by Mark Richards

Deep Playa: the Black Rock Bijou Theater

For BRCvr, I am working on the modeling and texturing for the Black Rock Bijou, a full-blown, delightfully dilapidated old single-screen theater that pays homage to both the magic of the silver screen and the magic of an environment that time forgot.

A 1940’s Moderne Theater with 20 Seats in the Middle of a Desert // Provided by Sam G
A 2020 Digital Recreation by Pearl Pospiech

I am looking forward to some old-time movie screenings in this adorable building, although I am not sure how long I will be able to sit still knowing all there is to explore during Burn week.

Modeling in the Open-Source Blender 3D // Pearl Pospiech
Modeling the Marquee // Pearl Pospiech
Texture Creation // Pearl Pospiech

After this 30-hour marathon of Blender tutorials (some that I had pinned for ages but had never had the chance to complete) and Discord chats, I have truly leveled up as a texture artist and game asset designer.

Access this world in AltSpace easily by saving to your favorites from the web first:

Art Installation: Purr Pods

Soothing the weary desert wanderer with the power of purring.

The Purr Pods made their first appearance on playa in 2019, created by sculptor / welder Paige Tashner.

The cats are touch-activated, triggering purring that resonates throughout the sculptures and into the body and souls of the participants.

Purr Pods During the Day on Playa

Paige described the playa installation to me:

The cats had three petting pads that are touch sensors made from the same rings used to create the sculptures. The ring was mounted into the middle of an acrylic disc for insulation, and then the wire that made the ring a touch sensor was connected through a ring terminal and a sheet metal screw on the back so it wasn’t visible.

When someone touched a pad, that cat would purr for 10 minutes. The purring was at the correct frequency of an actual cat’s purr — between 25 and 150 Hertz — which can be calming and healing. It vibrated the entire sculpture using mini bass shakers screwed right to the metal.

On playa, each pad controlled an aspect of the purring like the speed and the intensity (louder/quieter), lighting changes, and meow sounds. Because of the playa dust’s effect on electronics, the more minute details stopped working and I actually had to “neuter” one of the cats early in the week because it wouldn’t stop meowing! And even later during the week another one of the cats would just meow at random.

After the Burn, non-burnable art pieces are often transported back home and, if they are lucky enough, placed around the country with the help of organizations like We Are From Dust, for the enjoyment of communities everywhere. The cool cats Vega and Luna are currently curled up at Point San Pablo Harbor tucked behind the restaurant, Nobilis in Richmond (not far from San Francisco), California. Scooby Doo is in North Carolina and will be part of a purrmanent exhibit at The American Museum of the House Cat.

This year’s digital installation is a true story about collaboration. Paige has received labour and help from many friends along the way, and this Burn is no exception. A campmate named Bingo was motivated to place the sculptures in a few of the multiverses. He joined one of the BRCvr webinars looking for some help modeling the rings of these cats.

I had already committed to at least two other projects at this point, but you know you sometimes get an idea and you can’t keep your mouth shut.

Turns out, there were existing 3D models created by an artist named Heather Bama Blaikie to assist in the physical fabrication. Rather than 3D modeling each one of the metal rings, I suggested that *one* could use a transparent texture wrapped around the existing OBJ models.

Well, that one person became me. I soon found myself doing a “test.” The original OBJ didn’t work — maybe something with normals flipped? Before long though, I was down a rabbit hole and ended up making an actual finished thing.

So here I am, an official cat-tributor to a pretty cool art project.

(left) Purr Pods at Night in Black Rock City, NV | (right) Rendered in Blender 3D

My “test” which is actually a low-poly version of the Purr Pod, will now serve as the 3D icon on the playa map that links to the full-resolution, interactive world that Bingo will be managing from here.

First response from the sculptor?

“Holy crap cats! It looks ameowzing!!!”

Process of Making the VR-Ready Purr Pod Installation, Removing Unneeded Geometry

Paige remarked:

“I’m really hoping people who weren’t on playa last year can find them in the different multiverses. I really feel honored that my friends felt they were worth putting out into the multiverse.”

I can’t wait to see what Bingo and the other team members can create as far as interactive audio — pushing the limits of our current tech seems to be a theme of the past few weeks in Burner build land!

Update: I am told that the kitties landed at Videogasm:

There is an active Discord community making this virtual build week incredibly collaborative. Sharing lighting tips, still-in-the-making best practices, bug fixes including the incredibly wonky and constantly-evolving Multimedia Console, and updates to AltSpace that allow even better experience design. I am honored to be a part of these incredible projects and can hardly wait to see them filled with people.

In the midst of all this building, I took a moment to peep at the existing World home page, which is still very much a work in process but accessible to anyone who is curious enough.

Entering AltSpaceVR

Built in AltspaceVR, even during this “build week,” the BRCvr experience is impressive. I guess the lack of dust makes everything go up faster. 

While I am fairly new to AltspaceVR, I was able to go through their tutorial in less than an hour, customize my avatar, take some selfies, then follow the instructions to access the still-in-beta BRCvr world.

I landed at the Man so I had no greeter to guide me. My understanding is that participants will enter from Gate during Burn week and will be greeted by a host and hopefully heckled a bit too.

From the Man, I noticed a map, so I started clicking and ended up teleporting somewhere unexpected. There was no real signage or indication of where I was, but I saw the button “click to get high.” Cheeky.

@partygirlpearl Takes on the Playa

So I did. And up, up, and away I went!

I had a beautiful panoramic view of the playa. But, as in real life, there was no button to come back down.

I attempted to teleport back to a familiar landmark: The Man.  It was like I was having a real Burning Man experience.

And it was a long walk, even while teleporting. I loved that sense of scale while looking around in my HTC Vive. 

Something else I noticed, but only subtly so: the ambient sounds were spot on. Whoever did the sound design for this gets a gold star. Even though no one was in the virtual world, I had the feeling that there was a party going on everywhere around me. It was not overpowering, just enough to make you feel like you were in your own camp getting ready for a big night out, or somewhere in deep playa just taking it all in. I could have sat there and meditated right there on that virtual cracked dirt.

When I reached the Man, I walked all the way around but could not find the map where I had originally landed. I did notice some blue portals, and took the one to Center Camp which gave me so much joy. Especially the message on the carpet. I’m not going to give any spoilers, but it was definitely making me chuckle out loud.

Which brings me to the last point. Despite being a technophile and having an audio engineer as a partner, it took a lot of flipping of switches and hair pulling to figure out how to make the microphone input work on my headset. The multiplayer aspect is really what it’s all about, and not being able to talk to anyone would have been like being a diabetic in the Chocolate Factory.

An Incredible Build by PlayAlchemy // Opening Party on Saturday Before Burn Week

If you have a Windows PC and a headset, or own an Oculus Quest, you should definitely make some time to check out this burn universe. A Mac client is currently in Alpha release and may be released during the week for public beta. Non-headset owning PC users can use a brand-new 2D mode to access the world, though I highly recommend the VR version for the sense of presence and scale.

As mentioned above, I’ll be running a few 2D tours of my own, kind of like a virtual art car. Which, by the way, is also a thing at BRCvr.

Charlie the Unicorn Art Car in AltSpace

First time Burner? You can book your FREE, personalized tour here.

I will be sure to take you through the Gate and Greeter experience, and explain the main tenets of any Burn.

Returning Burner? Book you tour here.

This will be slightly less focused on history and philosophy of the community and more about the cool parts of these virtual universes.

Or, just connect with me in-world @partygirlpearl on AltSpace and I’d be happy to show you around.