Microsoft’s “Ignite” VR Event Spiraled Into a Virtual Burning Man Festival

Digital avatars shooting energy beams at a campfire.

Microsoft’s Ignite conference is underway, and this year it held the event’s keynote address in Virtual Reality. Alex Kipman, the man behind Kinect and HoloLens, spent most of the keynote addressing the audience in hologram form and showing off Microsoft’s new Mixed Reality Mesh concept. What came next is something beyond words and description. Thankfully, we have the video too.

Ignite’s keynote address started normally enough, minus attending in VR. And if you didn’t have a headset, you could watch through YouTube, but it just wasn’t the same. When CEO Satya Nadella spoke, he appeared on a virtual screen above the virtual stage, giving his usual words of inspiration and future direction. Nothing unusual. He ended by announcing a new work and social platform dubbed Microsoft Mesh, but more on that in a moment.

It all changed when Alex Kipman showed up. He appeared on a virtual stage in “hologram” form. It wasn’t a perfect hologram; if you moved around in the AltspaceVR setting, you couldn’t see around him or even a different perspective. But there he stood amidst VR avatars as a fully realized human, wearing a HoloLens.

A downward view of a Hologram Alex Kipman, totally flattened and skewed against the background.
The “hologram” wasn’t convincing from every perspective.

He then showed off Microsoft’s next mixed reality project, dubbed Mesh. Mesh seems to be a cross between VR, AR, and Teams. It’s a collaborative space for people to gather remotely and show up to meetings in hologram or digital avatar form. Initially, the avatars will take their look from AltspaceVR, a social VR platform Microsoft recently purchased.

A digital submarine rising from a stage in front of a group of digital avatars.
Look closely and you can spot the author in VR form, first row, second from the left, wearing a grey cap.

The Ignite event space transformed throughout the presentation. Viewers went under the ocean, chose what fish should swim around them, got a close view of a bridge in progress, and saw a giant glowing squid closeup.

And as with any event, people delivered scripted lines in a stilted fashion that made you wish for proper actors and presenters. There were plenty of good moments, like a concept Pokémon GO in HoloLens form. But it went off the rail when Guy Laliberté showed up, in frog form no less, to introduce Hanai World

Alex Kipman talking to a digital frog.

Hanai World is…we don’t know what it is. According to the Hanai World website, it’s a “social mixed reality platform where individuals can meet, exchange and connect through a wide variety of events and gatherings.” And that’s probably a good a description as any.

Shortly after introducing Hanai World, Kipman and Laliberté whisked into a psychedelic portal filled with lights and faces. That melted into a festival-like location with a campfire in the middle. People wearing HoloLens sets, VR avatars, and Cirque du Soleil dancers showed up, and a party session broke out. Yes, Microsoft went full Burning Man.

Kipman and Laliberté attempted maneuvers reminiscent of dancing, but if awkwardness were a full-body motion set just off-rhythm to music, that’s what they did. Before long, song broke out, the VR avatars shot energy beams into the campfire, and the Earth rose from the flames. It gets even weirder from there, and you should just watch the video at the top of the article. It’s already set to the introduction of Hanai World for you.

A day later, it’s still unclear what the point of all that was. But we’ll give Microsoft this: its Mixed Reality ambitions seem to be bold. It’s unclear if Microsoft Mesh will take off, and right now, that feels unlikely. But where HoloLens shook the world a few years ago with a shocking new concept of Augmented Reality headsets, Microsoft seems to be continuing down the path of merging digital and physical worlds. We’ll see if the company’s tech catches up to its visions. Hopefully without any more campfire festivals.

Josh Hendrickson Josh Hendrickson
Josh Hendrickson has worked in IT for nearly a decade, including four years spent repairing and servicing computers for Microsoft. He’s also a smarthome enthusiast who built his own smart mirror with just a frame, some electronics, a Raspberry Pi, and open-source code. Read Full Bio »

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