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How to Make Virtual Festivals Way Better

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Guest Post by Anselm Engle

Burning Man went virtual this year, and we all learned a lot in a hurry. It wasn’t the first festival to go all-online (Outside Inside Lands streamed on Twitch this year, and Glastonbury’s Shangri La went virtual as Lost Horizon), but virtual Burning Man certainly raised the bar for sheer size and audacity. Sure, there were performances, but Burning Man and events like it are about exploring places, art, and people. It’s close, but not there yet for me.

The Mayan Warrior was going off in the playa

Just because something looks like Burning Man (or the Alameda County Fair) doesn’t mean it hits the same. Going to Virtual Burning Man blew my mind, no question, but there was no smell of burning propane, no dust in my boots, and try as I might, I couldn’t hold my sweety’s hand as we floated across the desert. The Burning Man team did a fantastic job on a tight schedule, but it didn’t leave me feeling like I went to the desert and had my reality turned upside down. It was to meatspace Burning Man what a vegan burger is to a meat burger- not the same, but close enough to evoke a familiar experience.

La Victrola (foreground) and Skywhale (center) are real-world Burning Man art from recent years.

Today, virtual events are what fake meat was in 2005: better than it was, but not fooling anybody. They have to take the same path vegan burgers did – some will continue to inch closer to indistinguishable, and others will throw simulation out the window and aim for “tasty!” And that, my friends, is exciting! The most fascinating bits of virtual Burning Man were the worlds (oh, yes there were many!) that threw “accuracy” and “reality” to the wind, like the series of domes floating in a fractal sky that would be impossible in a world with gravity and only three dimensions.

With a space this big, even 100 avatars feels pretty empty.

What happens when virtual events embrace the possibilities of VR? More than a hundred or so little meeple running around a virtual space bogs it down, so instead of building a massive event that needs to duplicate once there are 100 meeple in it, let’s shrink the space and let it get crowded. I don’t need the entire Indio Polo Field of Coachella, just the front row. Animate the background with a CG crowd so it’s not empty, but damn, I get the best view in the house. The pit is crowded, people are cheering, and it starts to feel right.

Let’s take it a step further and do what Lost Horizon did, give me a 3-D show and stick it in a club, just big enough for 100 people. Make it feel intimate. Let me step outside and run around the open space between stages, but give me that crowd and crush. Ever see Lady Gaga at The Chapel? Now you can.

Lost Horizon 2020

There’s a downside to virtual, though: it’s not the same. Most of us aren’t willing to spend hundreds of dollars on a virtual festival. No money, no acts; no acts, no event. How do organizers recoup the money they pay to performers?

For starters, have a virtual merch table. With print-on-demand, sizes are always in stock. If you buy a shirt, a message pops up: “Wear now?” and poof! Your avatar has the band logo on their back. Far away in the real world, a shirt order goes in, and a week later you have a physical memento from a CGI experience. Volunteer shirts, stickers, albums.. Why not? A logo on the back, a virtual sticker, a CGI album that emails you a download code.

But why stop there? Lost Horizon is talking about putting in a food court with delivery. Real food in a virtual festival!

If density is a selling point, then don’t sell me a place to get away from the crowds, give me a place to get into a crowd. My crowd. Gone are the days of three dozen VIP cabanas at Outside Lands. We just need one entrance that shunts whoever enters to their chosen club. Now your friends are all in the same instance instead of lost in a different universe. Heck, let’s make this a VIP: put a custom wallpaper skin on my cabana and overlay a virtual couch on the one in my living room. Sitting on virtual couches is a thing we can do with VR, let’s so do it.

This is just the beginning of virtual events. COVID is here for the rest of the year, and probably 2021 as well. Learn it now, do it right, and next summer will be better!

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