Burning Man in Cyberspace…. No, Really!

Bethany at Burning Man 2020 in AltspaceVR

What you do get when a global community of artists finds out that their most beloved annual gathering has been canceled only four months before the event date because of COVID19? Well you don’t get a series of Zoom sessions, that’s for sure!  

Radical Decentralized Collaboration in Action

The first thing the Burning Man organization did was assure us the event would somehow go on, followed by a survey asking us what virtual environments we would recommend and why. They got the word out immediately that everyone should start preparing for a decentralized virtual playa, even though the organization had no idea what that would look like when it was accomplished.

Talking about stepping out in faith!

I knew the moment it was announced, that Burning Man 2020 would not disappoint. I know this community well, and I knew that as an organization it would leverage the same radical decentralized collaborative effort that has characterized the success of the community that emerges in the harsh physical world of the Black Rock desert year after year. I knew it would be brought to life in multiple places, in multiple ways, by multiple people who would join forces to do something that many of them had never done before. And I was not disappointed. 

For the week of Burning Man, people from all over the globe gathered, talked, explored, attended in-world live streams of bands and speakers, engaged with art and artists, and of course attended dance parties by dancing in their own room or even their own chair while sitting at a computer, perhaps with a headset on. People were able to be with old friends and new. 

Experiential in Nature

I was part of theme camp at Burning Man from 2002 to 2007, I’ve been involved in virtual worlds on a desktop since 2014, and I’ve been actively exploring many different environments with my colleagues using an Oculus Rift for the last year. So I’m not some newbie. And I’m NOT that easily impressed. (Especially by AltspaceVR, I hate the desktop version… oh, don’t get me started.)

But I have to be honest with you,  what this community pulled off in a single weeklong event, on multiple platforms, involving so many people,  on this scale, with only four months notice? Are you kidding me?! It was nothing less than astonishing. The Samskara exhibit alone (see my video below) hosted by PlayAlchemist, actually made me cry. It’s beyond breathtaking. I made a little video trying to capture the magic, but honestly images and video just can’t do this justice.

Burning Man and the virtual world are both essentially experiential in nature. Neither of them can be conveyed in any medium, they must be experienced in order to be understood. 

Important Lessons For All of Us

I’ve written (and presented) about the culture of virtual worlds and communities of practice for several years now. From the very beginning I’ve been describing what the educators I know have been doing  with desktop VR for the last decade or so as Burning Man in Cyberspace. The reason I’ve described it like this is because the nature and cultural overlap of both is immediately obvious to anyone who has actually been a part of the Burning Man community. 

Without ever intending to, Burning Man has been paving the way for this kind of virtual event for decades already.  I think burners are characterized by multiple traits that are now more important than ever;  being comfortable with embracing ambiguity, of acceptance of change, of fearlessness in the face of challenges, (born of what seems a near universal acceptance of the spiritual concept of surrendering ego and seeing failure as a part of learning), of being radically self-sufficient in an extreme environment, and finally, of placing high value on the openness and trust required to embrace others as needed partners to create and sustain an immediate, strong, and resilient community. 

Another Emerging Metaverse

It’s truly phenomenal to witness what happens when a community that promotes Radical Inclusion, Self-reliance, Self-Expression, Communal Effort, and Civic Responsibility (which are five of the Ten Principles of Burning Man), produce in just a couple months while completely decentralized across the world and in different virtual environments. 

You might wonder how they onboarded people to this whole new reality. Well I found just one example,  a two page Google doc from Black Rock City VR org, which was just one of the organizations that helped people get into just one of the VR platforms that was used. BRCvr organizers were VR enthusiasts who had been to Burning Man starting in 2014, so they already had a presence in Altspace VR. What I didn’t know, was that “In 2017, after AltspaceVR shuttered, Microsoft acquired it—in no small part because Microsoft engineer Alex Kipman had met AltspaceVR cofounder Gavan Wilhite at (you guessed it) Burning Man.

Stories like that are just one of many that continually reconfirm my admiration for this community, and more importantly, for a system of organization (disorganization?!) that is very different from much of our larger culture. 

Burning Man Just Raised the Bar

BRCvr is now one of the eight recognized Universes of the Burning Man Metaverse, a metaverse that didn’t exist four months ago. That’s kind of mind-blowing isn’t it? Describing each of these as its own universe isn’t just hyperbole either. The image at the top of this post is from just one environment in AltspaceVR.  All those blue cylinders are teleports to other locations created by different people. That’s 90 teleports to 90 different locations, and that just one place in one of the eight official Burning Man universes. 

You need to let that sink in for a moment.

Someday we won’t have COVID19 preventing us from actually gathering in the desert again, but that doesn’t mean burners will abandon VR. I think all of us know that genie is out of the bottle. The virtual world makes the playa even more accessible to more people. It’s the ultimate Burning Man ideal in many ways. But Burning Man also just raised the bar for anyone interested in fostering authentic connection, building community, and creating incredibly engaging opportunities for us to actually be together while still being globally dispersed. It is doable, but it take a shift in mindset. And it takes a village.

Ready to Get In-World? Save the Date!

On that note, I  continue to work with Pat Franks and Marie Vans from SJSU’s School of Information, and the Virtual Center for Archives and Records Administration (VCARA). I’m excited to be a part of the XR Research Center Symposium scheduled for October 24th 9am -12. We’ll have some birds of a feather breakout discussions, a research poster area, and a keynote with Dr. Fengfeng Ke, from Florida State University, who will present  on her work on learning affordances and constraints of VR-based learning environments.   

Mozilla Hubs – A Super Easy Virtual World!

If you’re as sick of Zoom sessions as I am, and you’re still intimidated by learning how to use Second Life, why not try something that’s super easy? Among other locations, I’ve started developing in Mozilla Hubs. You can access one of my persistent environments from the link below on almost any device, even a phone. Anyone can go in there, just send them the link. Don’t miss the teleports to other rooms I’ve create, inside the building!


As always, message me with any questions. I hope to see you soon in the metaverse!

A Stellar Conference in a Virtual World

I wanted to follow up on my last post about attending the 13th annual Virtual Worlds Best Practices in Education conference, which was indeed STELLAR! From Dr. L. Rob Furman and two other opening keynote speakers, presentations spanning three days, the Creatures of Myth scavenger hunt game (and the 10 other pre and post conference immersive events like Embrace the Suck: Classic World of Warcraft and my own Friends of the Library Selfie Portraits Activity), to my friend Renne Emiko Brock deservedly winning this year’s Thinkerer Award, the conference was a whirlwind of intergalactic adventure! I created a mock up the Community Virtual Library’s Hypergrid Resource centers in OpenSim for the exibit area, and I had a lot of fun creating that little 45 second welcome video for it above. CVL’s space station and hypergrid portals in OpenSim tied in nicely with this year’s theme. In a nutshell, this conference is a great example of what a global educational immersive event can and should be. 

Here’s a picture of my tiny cat avatar dancing with Renne/Zinnia at one of the social events after her receiving the Thinkerer Award.

Bethany and Renne Dancing

Bethany and Renne Dancing at the David Bowie tribute concert social event.

This year I was also a volunteer (as well as presenter), which added another level of experience for me. I’m already planning to volunteer next year, and I’m working on a more elaborate immersive event. It’s so inspiring to see what others have done, and I’m still trying to catch up in terms of my own skills! Several more experienced volunteers said they thought there were more newbies this year than in the past, (about 3500 people are involved with this event each year), probably because interest in virtual environments is having a moment. This is not unexpected given the global pandemic. So I enjoyed being able to help people who were brand new get acclimated to the environment, I gave out landmarks and teleports, and we chatted about this event and other educators I know and their simulations. Of course I also had a great time catching up with other virtual world colleagues I’ve met before at this conference. 

An International Community of Immersive Educators

It’s always exciting to be part of an international event, with participants from all over the world. I was part of three presentations. My CVL and VCARA colleagues and I have been actively exploring social VR platforms with head-mounted display, despite the fact that most of us prefer virtual world platforms (aka Desktop VR). CVL Director Dr. Valerie Hill and I presented on the topic of Intentional Immersion. She and I have, (and continue), to meet using Oculus Rift in different social VR settings to play around and explore features,and to compare notes on our experiences and technical difficulties. How else can we possible keep up with so many different platforms that are currently competing for our adoption in education?

San Jose State University Colleagues

presentation area in space

One of the presentation areas at the conference.

The presentation probably of most interest to other educators, however, was our panel with VCARA colleagues “Survey Says! Developing Criteria for VR Courses”. Val and I joined SJSU iSchool’s Dr. Pat Franks, and VCARA alums Dr. Marie Vans and Alyse Dunavant-Jones. I spoke about about the survey responses about wanting to use VR in the classroom vs as the classroom.Watching a video of a virtual event is nothing like experiencing it for yourself, so let me just give you my big takeaway.   (I’m speaking from 46 minutes in for the last 10 minutes.) When it comes to immersive technology for education, the criteria educators determined were the most essential are met already in ALL ways with desktop VR, with one single exception. That exception is that we don’t currently have a way for head-mounted display interaction with those on a desktop. But in ALL other respects, desktop VR like Second Life and OpenSim has everything else educators have told us they need. So if you’re interested in immersive teaching and learning, I have two questions for you.  Are you in-world yet? If not – why not?!

There’s No Contagion in the Virtual World!

Bethany's Tiny Cat Avatar with Gas Mask & Goggles

Bethany’s Tiny Cat Avatar with Gas Mask & Goggles

eCampus has been especially busy recently, with multiple inquiries coming in about options for remote teaching with technology. Those of us who are young and healthy might not be particularly worried about the escalation of COVID-19 in the US, but for those of us with elderly parents or friends with compromised immune systems, we certainly are worried about contracting this and passing it along. Now is an ideal time to plan for the very real possibility we may need to self-quarantine, or that our students might need to do so. 

This disruption is also not just affecting teaching and learning in the classroom. One of my eCampus colleagues flew out of town for an ed tech conference last weekend that was cancelled upon arrival. Dealing with this sort of thing is inconvenient or even scary, but the truth is it need not disrupt our education or conferences. We have long had all the tools we need, but we’ve just not been in a position where we really had to use them. Obviously there’s no time like the present to start taking a serious look at the many underutilized tools we have that can help us connect digitally. And that includes virtual environments. 

Coincidentally, I’m scheduled to present at the Online Learning Consortium conference at the end of this month. It hasn’t been cancelled….(yet?). And ionically I’m presenting on Purposeful Tinkering: Experiential Preparation & Networking In Virtual Worlds For VR-Ready Educators. So I’m going to a physical world conference where I’ll be talking about my ongoing virtual collaborations with global colleagues using desktop VR. At these physical events I’ve often mentioned cost, accessibility, engagement, and environmental factors as just a few of the good reasons we should all be advocating for the wider adoption of virtual worlds for meetings, teaching, and conferences. It had never occurred to me until now to add pandemics and social distancing to the list. Yet here we are. 

So I’m scheduled to present on this topic at a  physical world conference that likely has no good plan to host it any other way if it gets canceled. Even more inronically, however, I’ll be presenting in-world in two weeks time at the 13th annual Virtual Worlds Best Practices in Education, which of course will not get cancelled because it’s (gasp!) held in a virtual environment!  And let me be entirely clear what I mean when I say a virtual conference, because I’m certainly not talking about a live streamed webcast. That’s a very poor substitute and not interactive at all. Have you ever attended such a thing, only to actually spend most of the time on a second screen?  So tell me how good a virtual conference is, when you can walk away from it and nobody even knows you’re missing?!

A conference in a virtual world, however, is totally different. If you take your headset off while sitting at your computer, you better set your status on your avatar as “away”. Otherwise people might actually talk and chat at you and think you’re just being rude by not responding. They assume you are on the other end because you are literally present in the digital environment represented by your avatar. In a virtual conference, when a presenter takes questions from the audience, everyone can see who you are, everyone can hear you speak, everyone can see your questions and comments when you post them in chat. It’s incredible interactive. If the group is exploring someone’s exhibit and you don’t keep up as people walk or fly around the corner, the audio actually drifts away. If you don’t keep up, you won’t be able to hear them. If you don’t participate actively, you actually miss out. You don’t really have an option to be passive. So a virtual conference is a lot like a physical one. (Well, except for the flying part!….And the part about being able to log in from anywhere in the world while in your pajamas, and that your avatar can represent any aspect of your personality that you want, etc., etc.)

So I have little tolerance for crappy “virtual” events that are non-immersive and non-interactive. If you want to experience a real virtual conference, now is your chance to attend one of the very best! The 13th annual Virtual Worlds Best Practices in Education  starts in two weeks and it’s free! You can meet some really innovative educators from around the world who regularly meet up in-world with their students and other educators to promote teaching and learning and global citizenship. If you want to attend, I can teach everything you need to know in less than an hour. We can do this in-person or via Zoom. I think it will blow your mind, and spoil you for what more conferences should be. 

I’m also excited to be presenting again at VWBPE this year. I have an immersive event on March 15th, I’ve also built an exhibit for the Stellar space theme which ties in nicely with what I’ve build in OpenSim, and I’m also on a panel discussion with my iSchool VCARA and CVL colleagues. The panel discussion is about the findings of a survey conducted late last year. We wanted to know what educators thought were the most important features needed for the educational use of VR platforms. (By the way, SJSU’s School of Information recently posted an interview with me about my work with them in virtual worlds for their Community Profiles page.) Like many of my colleagues that have used virtual worlds for years, and who are also actively exploring social VR platforms with head-mounted displays, I too have some opinions on the topic. All of us have valuable insights to share about what features we think are needed for education, and how different VR platforms stack up with what we’ve been using for the last 16 years with desktop VR. In fact, I made a video of an in-world presentation on this topic for a colleague at SUNY Empire State College. It’s for her student educators in one of her classes. My presentation is titled Beyond the Hype of Head Mounted Display (HMD) Virtual Reality.

So that’s my update. There’s no contagion in the virtual world, so come join us! Contact me if you have any questions! I’m happy to help your or your students get in-world. eCampus has computers with the Firestorm viewer already installed, so you or your students can access Second Life or OpenSim. And if you want to learn more before reaching out to me, check out my Canvas course, VW101: Burning Man in Cyberspace. You’ll find links to more information about some of the educators I know, many of whom I expect will be presenting this year at the conference. 



More Burning Man in Cyberspace Shenanigans

avatars in a boxing ring

Smackdown Redux!

Bethany's avatar presenting

Bethany presenting at OSCC 2019.

This was my third year attending the OpenSimulator Community Conference, which brings together a global group of developers, educators, and artists who are passionate about the open metaverse of OpenSim virtual worlds. It’s always inspiring to hang out in-world with old friends and to meet new ones, see presentations and hear about what others are doing with their colleagues, students, and friends in OpenSim virtual worlds. 

Panel Discussion & Smackdown Redux

San Jose State University was well represented. In addition to my own short presentation, I participated on a panel discussion with my Community Virtual Library colleagues, Dr. Valerie Hill and Dr. Marie Vans, as we talked about our ongoing projects on the Kitely and Avacon grids.  CVL also presented a redo of our Virtual Worlds vs Virtual Reality Smackdown debate, which was a real hit! (Pun intended!) I even built a boxing ring for the occasion. Val played moderator as before, but this time I was debating Marie, an iSchool alumna. Marie was embodied as a fantasy creature that well suited her passionate advocacy for virtual reality with head mounted displays. (She’s also a wee bit intimidating to debate. Marie is a senior research scientist at Hewlett Packard, and her current research area is virtual reality and education!)  Undaunted, however, I chose to embody the very symbol of OpenSim, the Hippo. And don’t be fooled by the humble appearance, the hippo is actually the most dangerous animal on the African continent. So it’s a worthy symbol of open source virtual worlds. Of course, the OpenSim crowd cheered wildly for me when they saw me come out swinging! 

Immersive Art OER Resources Presentation

My own presentation was about some new OER content I’d developed, initially as an idea for  Dr. Eileen O’Connor, one of my virtual world colleagues. Eileen is the coordinator for SUNY Empire State College’s Masters of Arts Learning & Emerging Technology (MALET) Program.  Eileen has been teaching in virtual worlds for a number of years, and I’ve attended events at Marian Island on Kitely. Marian Island is her OpenSim world where she introduces other faculty to virtual worlds, and it’s where she showcases the work of her students who’ve also built worlds on the Kitely grid.  I had been inspired to create some content and tutorials to help any event organizer like her, (who certainly has their hands full!), to have an immersive activity that could teach a newer participant to learn how to create a simple piece of art they could share in the virtual environment. Of course then, it just made sense to share it with anyone in the community via a Creative Commons license. The more I do in the virtual world, the more I continue to develop expertise about how we can use these spaces in engaging and educational ways. 

If you want to hear more about the content and tutorials I created, you can watch the video of my session Art Gallery Contribution: A Plug-n-Play OER Immersive Activity.

Virtual Reality vs Virtual Worlds Smackdown!

Bethany's Avatars: T-Rex & "Tiny"

Bethany’s Avatars: T-Rex & “Tiny”

I recently joined my Community Virtual Library and SJSU’s VCARA colleagues at a fun event held at iSchool Island in Second Life. We held a Virtual Reality vs Virtual Worlds Smackdown Debate, complete with our impressive avatars ready to duke it out for the audience!

Our sparring was moderated by Dr. Valerie Hill, the director of the Community Virtual Library in Second Life, Avacon, and Kitely. We each had five minutes to speak, and then five minutes to refute our opponent’s position on the most important criteria for immersive environments (as recently identified in an unpublished VCARA survey). The criteria include:

  • Persistence
  • Accessibility
  • Open Educational Resources (OER)
  • Community of Practice
  • Building Independently and Collaboratively

Alyse Dunavant-Jones, the co-director of CVL, argued that  “VR is the future, and the future is now!” while embodied as an enormous fire-breathing dragon. I was embodied as a fearsome Tyrannosaurus Rex, arguing that virtual worlds have a much longer and proven history, and still offer a tremendous opportunity for immersive learning. Our avatars were actually so big, we traded into smaller sized ones while standing in the boxing ring to speak. As Alyse spoke she was embodied as a human-sized Gecko in the boxing ring. My T-Rex avatar loomed ominously outside the ring, growling of course. When it was my turn to speak I changed into my “tiny”, a cute black kitten with a fierce attitude. I was fearless of Alyce-as-dragon flying overhead! 

The event concluded as a draw, with both sides conceding that there are benefits and drawbacks to each. Also, it’s critical that pedagogy remain central. It is not enough to merely learn how to use the technology. The main takeaway I wanted to leave with the audience with is that regardless of what platforms we may use in the future, designers of any immersive learning activities have to be familiar with the long history of virtual worlds in education. More importantly, they should already have hands-on experience in virtual worlds. 

Check out more pictures at the VCARA blog post about the event. Anyone interested in networking (and having fun!) with educators in virtual worlds should contact Bethany at eCampus to learn more!