The Evolution of Social Networks from Text-Based Chat to Burning Man in VR


Having spent time recently on various virtual reality (VR) social networks, I am constantly reminded of the similarities between the virtual-reality worlds of today and services such as eWorld, CompuServe, and AOL of the ’90s. All tried to build cyber communities. eWorld went a little further, some argue too far, in implementing a strict set of community standards. eWorld ultimately closed on March 31, 1996, after 3 years of operation—3 years when we thought that we were going to change the world by enabling people from all over the globe to meet and safely play in cyberspace. Trivia games were particularly popular, as was just chatting with friends.

Then, as now, there were the naysayers that believed that online chat was dehumanizing. And so emojis were invented and one could express oneself online. People were becoming more familiar with online services, but wanted more. While all the major online services offered portals to the Internet, consumers soon found that they were able to bypass AOL and CompuServe, which ultimately, I believe, caused the demise of these services. People wanted to explore new horizons, and that was just the beginning. Those were the days, for example, when distance learning was thought to be just a fad or, at worst, diploma mills. Today there is not a school that does not offer online education, that I know of.

The Oculus Quest headset (HMD) released on May 21, 2019 (and difficult to obtain since) is responsible, in my opinion, for providing VR, or XR as the technology is now called, the bump it needed for VR to become mainstream. With the next version of the Quest rumored to be about to be released in October 2020, the adoption rate is going to explode, particularly since the price of the next-generation Quest is rumored to have been reduced by $100 off the price of the original Quest.

COVID-19 has also played a big part in making both consumers and corporations aware of the fact that a meeting in a virtual space is just as effective as meeting face-to-face at less cost and increased convenience, hence the emergence of companies such as Glue Immersed, VirBELA, and Engage, offering virtual meeting spaces equipped with whiteboards, laser pointers, and sticky notes. If one is looking for a meeting room and is prepared to pay for it, then these companies may serve one’s purpose, if one wants to mix business with community building; however, these services leave one short.

Ultimately, I believe we will see a VR version of the Internet that will allow one to traverse multiple words in VR. Browsers as we know them will become obsolete. For now, if you want to mix community with business, education, and pleasure, AltspaceVR is the place to go. As well as offering the ability to build custom worlds, there are ongoing events that keep one both entertained and educated on a wide variety of topics.

6 Altspace screens with different meet-ups and a performance and gaming event

Events on AltspaceVR

As was the case in 1996, we as humans are evolving with technology. Instead of creating a world of introverts, the Internet spurred creativity. It has also, however, provided for those who are more comfortable in a cyber world. Today, creativity and the ability to express oneself like never before is being enabled by virtual reality. The AltspaceVR World Program (Beta), for example, has enabled artists, educators, and others to build custom virtual worlds that range from Egyptian temples, to castles, to pretty much anything one can imagine. One of these worlds, or recreation of a world in this case, is Burning Man.

So many physical events have been completely cancelled because of COVID-19.  Burning Man is still on, however—or at least the virtual version of Burning Man VR (or BRCvr as this year’s event is called) is about to start—virtually on AltspaceVR. Every camp that one would find at the real Burning Man has been meticulously reconstructed in virtual reality. The Burning Man crew has been hard at it for months now.

large rust-colored mechanical man dwarfs virtual campsite; Camp Café Performance Stage on left emits a bright blue light into the sky

Construction on the Virtual Playa

BRCvr is ideally accessed using an Oculus Quest headset, but can also be accessed through the AltspaceVR Windows interface. Whereas the 3D Windows version gives one a glimpse into VR space, there is no comparison to the VR world that one experiences using an HMD such as the Oculus Quest. Experiencing VR on the Oculus Quest is a life-changing experience, in my opinion.

While seeing and being part of BRCvr is a great experience, of more importance, I believe, is bringing the 10 Burning Man principles, to cyberspace. The 10 principles are

  • Radical Inclusion
  • Gifting
  • Decommodification
  • Radical Self-reliance
  • Radical Self-expression
  • Communal Effort
  • Civic Responsibility
  • Leaving No Trace
  • Participation
  • Immediacy

These are principles that each Burner lives by, both at and away from the Burn. I continue to believe that interaction through cyberspace can lead to a richer, more fulfilling life; what we dreamt of in the days of the online services may be finally realized through virtual reality and BRCvr.

Copyright John Harvey @digitallywired (requires sign-in)

#virtualreality #burningman #AltspaceVR #oculusquest #BRCvr #burningman2020


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