INTERVIEW WITH ATHENA DEMOS
I don’t think there is a metaverse without communities. It is a requirement. Everything we build, we’re building for people to come and interact with it. That’s why I’m trying to change the paradigm around user experience to participant experience, because we are designing for how people will participate in the metaverse. That participation isn’t singular.
Nobody likes hanging out in digital space by themselves. That’s actually true of the physical spaces as well. If you walk into an empty room, you won’t stay for very long unless you have a specific purpose for being in that room. It’s all about your friends, your community, your coworkers, how you connect with other people, and engage with each other, and the space in which you’re with them. Bringing that value into a digital space, as we did with Burning Man, is a part of it. So, the metaverse is not a single-participant experience but rather a multi-participant one.
A user is a passive consumer. User experience can be compared to eating fast food: You’re eating it, and it instantly makes you feel good. But if you go to a dining experience where a chef takes a lot of effort, puts the flavors together in a certain way, and serves it to you - it is a participant-engaging experience. You share this experience together with the chef, staff around you, and other guests.
So, if you are by yourself, what do you do? You take photos and post them on your social media to share and engage with others in your experience. Same with the metaverse: It is where physical and digital meet.
It’s important to remember that the metaverse doesn’t really exist now and has various forms of interpretability. But If we could transfer the physical experience into the digital and have it seamlessly exist between these worlds, we would be able to connect communities and have a shared experience.
Think about sports. People get together in sports bars to enjoy the game together because the experience of togetherness matters. If it didn’t, we would watch the games at home.
So there wasn’t an actual vision of what this digital Burning Man experience was going to be. All we knew was that the physical event couldn’t happen [due to the pandemic]. But the Burning Man community needed to get together, not only in the US but all over the world.
We already started a virtual project many years ago. But it was a single-user experience. When technology developed further, we were able to create BRCvr for a large number of burners to come together and collaborate in the digital space.
During talks at the summits in Europe, participants were asked if they had visited Burning Man in the US. Very few people raised their hands, and it’s understandable. It’s hard to get there and very expensive coming from overseas. But my second question was how many people went to Burning Man digitally, and approximately 10 people raised their hands. It’s not about going to the middle of the desert and surviving the heat, it’s about community. All we wanted to do was create a space where people would feel welcomed. We created BRCvr for anyone who wants to join.
The Burning Man event that happens at the end of August in Black Rock City has a population of 80,000. The infrastructure that leads to that area of the desert cannot support anything larger than that. Even though we have people on waiting lists, we are limited by location-based size. The virtual world opens the possibility of participation for everyone who wants to.
My future goal for 5-8 years is to connect a physical and digital space so that the ~ 3 million people who try to get tickets every year are able to go. There will be 40,000 people physically in the desert, and the other 2.9 million joining virtually. And when you’re at the physical Burning Man, you would be able to put on VR glasses and go to specific areas, see the people that are in the digital space, and have conversations with them. Human connection across the metaverse.
All these years, we’ve been on the Microsoft AltspaceVR platform. We like that it's accessible by most VR headsets and on Mac and PC desktops. We wanted to create a place where people could come together without technology restrictions. Sadly, AltspaceVR was sunset on Mar 10, 2023. But we were already in our planning process for what was next for us.
In 2022, we went to Black Rock City and filmed it in 360 and 180 3D formats. Now participants can move in the fully navigable world and interact with 3D art while being immersed in a moment in time that happened at Burning Man 2022. We interviewed many people to talk about the art and tell the story of the community.
Now we are in the process of putting all the 3D content from the past 3 years and the new filmed content into one stand-alone app. While we build that, we will be producing community gatherings on various immersive social VR platforms.
Burning Man follows the principles of unconditional gifting. So, incorporate any sort of cryptos we find unnecessary. Buying tickets with crypto would be a huge barrier to entry since it applies too many steps for the user. In the future, perhaps, but not at the moment. Since VR is still a nascent technology, we need to keep the barrier to entry as low as possible.
Now, NFTs. I believe that in the Burning Man community, it’s unnecessary. If you have a gift, it doesn’t need a certificate of authenticity. You would only need it to resell it in the future, but it’s a gift!
As I see it, the only possible way is to use NFT as tokens to authenticate who we are. So in the physical world, your main ID is your DNA. If you leave it behind, people know you were there. In the digital world, your DNA is your data. NFTs connected to your identity and data can give you more control over it. If you go to the platform where your NFT shows your identity, you can select how you want your data to be stored and used. Data control via NFT authentication.
Unfortunately, most of these companies are run by people who think in social-normative constructs. For example, when you register for a platform and set up your avatar, you are often asked to choose between male, female, and sometimes other. On AltspaceVR, you only need to choose your body shape. We shouldn't be restricted by the confines of gender in the virtual space. For Big Rock Creative, we look to platforms that are more open and accepting of how you choose to express yourself radically. I love seeing participants express themselves with purple or green skin and pink hair or whatever they choose. It's not about being black or white, male or female, it's about being YOU.
We don’t force labels and define things, since they are stopping us. Not defining things opens us to new possibilities and opportunities.
We, ourselves. The “Big WE”, the “Huge WE’. We will. The Burning Man community has no laws. And for almost 35 years now, we don’t have a governing body. There is an organizational body that pulls permits and puts the infrastructure together for the event to happen. Yes, we obey Nevada and United States laws, but the organization itself has no laws. Instead, we have principles that the community respects. These are guidelines that describe what it means to be a Burner, not define us.
The community very much takes care of itself and each other. And it’s possible when you have a set of principles for everyone. If the community sees that another member is doing something wrong, they will hold them accountable. We do it out of the principles of humanity. And I believe that when we build a strong foundational fabric with these principles in the metaverse, we will evolve from community to humanity.
Burning Man is a great social experiment. And when you experiment, you have to allow for trying. Everyone has an opportunity to try, and that’s how we learn. Try to live in the desert, try to build art, try to be a part of a team, try to build an entire city, and remove it as if we were never there. Just try. The same is true of the metaverse. When building a whole digital world, we try something new, make mistakes, course correct, see what works, and build again, etc. With the inclusion of the principles, We are practicing being humane beings.
So let’s continue that social experiment. We have this opportunity to evolve into humanity, and the metaverse will give us a platform to try that.