From the sky, Burning Man at night is an oasis aglow in the middle of a dark desert. Thousands of lights attached to clothes, bikes, furry boots and hula hoops light up the playa for the week-long festival. While Black Rock City has long been hailed as a place to reconvene with nature, technology has a special place and purpose, bringing together hackers and makers who see the event as the perfect opportunity to experiment with innovative and sustainable gadgetry.
And if Burning Man is known for anything, it’s experimentation. Burners have long found creative uses for technology and electronics, incorporating it into themed camps and art installations. This freedom has attracted a fair share of geeks, such as Larry Page—Google’s CEO—who wants a Burning Man-type event specific to technology.
“I like going to Burning Man,” he said in an interview with gadget blog TechCrunch earlier this year. “An environment where people can try new things. I think as technologists we should have some safe places where we can try out new things and figure out the effect on society. What’s the effect on people, without having to deploy it to the whole world?”
And Burning Man has responded similarly, hosting a series of “maker” workshops earlier this year on making solar stoves, musical instruments and art from recycled materials. And it’s also seen technology as a learning opportunity, and a way to bring together science and art for kids. The Youth Education Spaceship (Y.E.S)—an exploratory creative installation that helps children learn about art and science—started at this year’s Maker Faire and will eventually settle at Burning Man, where kids will be encouraged to study and play on the playa.
But until Silicon Valley can find its own place to prototype and develop with the same freedom, there’s always the Black Rock Desert.
Most Burning Man technology falls into one of four categories—clothing, transportation, art and food. There’s often plenty of overlap. Making functional pieces takes months of preparation.
Tara Davis, co-founder of Firefly Lighting and “high duchess” of PolyEsther’s Costume Boutique, makes electronic wearables throughout the year, but her skills are especially in high demand during Burning Man season. Davis and her boyfriend, Patrick Tebbutt, started experimenting with electronic playa wear by making hula hoops. They then learned how to make clothes with features like blinking lights. Much of what they create is programming-intensive.
“It usually starts with thinking, ’This would be cool lit up,’” Davis says.
Davis is an experienced seamstress and clothing designer, and incorporates controlled light-emitting diodes (LEDs) into items such as corsets, furry vests and scoodies (hoods with an attached scarf). She uses Arduino, an open source microcontroller popular among hackers and makers, to program the wearables. Arduinos and Netduinos come in different sizes and forms, and can be used in conjunction with other microcontrollers to make some complex ecosystems within an outfit.
Most of what Davis, Tebbutt and their friend, Kurt Dukatz, create focuses on light, including a 6,000 LED screen that pulses with music. They plan to feature the screen at their camp. Davis also plans to make more responsive clothing using Bluetooth integration, allowing for input—like a voice command or physical movement—to have a function. She envisions clothes reacting to certain phrases—like a scoodie with lights that turn yellow if the wearer speaks the term “Porta Potti.”
Davis says that making wearables is more approachable than ever, with technology companies like Adafruit and SparkFun offering widgets and components that can be sewed right into garments, adding features like temperature sensors or audio control. But there’s still a learning curve, especially for using conductive ink or wire.
“We really try to make everything super-user friendly,” she says. Power supplies are built right into the clothing, and many of the garments are washable. “I’m excited that more people are getting into wearables, especially as part of the maker movement. But some people are turned off by how technical it is. I try to explain the process, but sometimes, when people ask me how certain things are made, I sometimes just say, ’hippie magic.’”
While much of the making happens pre-Burn, some are hoping to make Burning Man into a hackathon experience.
Eric Jennings, co-founder of Pinoccio—a wireless microcontroller manufactured in Reno—plans to hack at his camp with the device he helped design.
“There will definitely be Pinoccios on the playa,” he says. The Pinoccio, also open source, can be used for automating or activity tracking. Jennings sees a lot of potential to use Pinoccio. While it can be used with Arduino, it also functions independently.
Others are trying to find ways to better use the landscape’s natural resources—particularly, sunlight and wind.
“I think it’s really important that sustainability is a priority for technology,” says Callie Scott, who will be attending Burning Man this year for the second time. She plans to use a stove for solar cooking, and also built a solar charger for her camera. “Because Burning Man is so much about not leaving a trace, it’s a good opportunity to think of how we rely on technology and how that’s impacting the planet. There are some pretty cool projects at Burning Man that use renewable energy, so this could be a place to try out how these energies could be used in communities on a larger scale.”
Most people use a generator to power their camp or installation, but some are trying to replace gasoline with biofuel. Davis hopes that more people will start using rechargeable batteries instead of disposables. The Burning Man website also offers suggestions for lighting, emphasizing options like halogens, which are bright and efficient. Scott notes that the best part of incorporating technology into a camp is the opportunity for collaboration.
“If you set a goal with your friends, there’s really no reason not to fulfill it,” she says. “You just have to get creative. We wanted to be more sustainable this year, so we challenge ourselves to think outside of the box for how we could make that happen. We’d love for that to be done in the tech industry.”
Scott, who says that she doesn’t necessarily consider herself a “maker”—“I’m still learning the basics about technology”—thinks there’s no better place to learn. “While the camps at Burning Man have a pretty good setup of items, there’s always something you forget at home. Like, what happens if you forget a soldering iron? It’s a great place to push the limits. And who knows? We might end up creating something out there that will change the world.”