Welcome to Burning Man: Friend to Fire-Shooting Octopus Robots, Enemy of Tesla Roadsters

By Whitney Phaneuf , written on August 28, 2012

From The News Desk

Elon Musk ruined my first Burning Man. It was 2007 and I found myself in the Green Man Pavilion standing under a carport stacked with solar panels designed to charge electric vehicles. Under the carport was a Tesla Roadster prototype, black plastic curves devoid of any logo, but its identity obvious to anyone who didn't mistake it for a Lotus.

In the fine white dust that clings to everything here, burners had written their angry comments, one of which spoke to me: "Go home." I had contributed to that Tesla being there, and going home was exactly what I wanted to do.

I had agreed to go to Burning Man with the solar carport startup, along with my co-workers and boss. The clean technology demos, which we helped organize, were believed to violate one of Burning Man's ten principles, Decommodification. I'm sure it wasn't Musk's fault. Nor was it his fault that I didn't know how to pitch a tent and the co-workers I barely knew had to help me. Nor could anyone have prepared me for the oppressive heat, the inescapable dust, the dredlocked hippies on acid asking for a hug. I hated Burning Man and, staring at that Tesla, I thought it hated me.

And yet, here I am, my sixth year attending the festival, reporting live from the event. I'm camping with two of the co-workers who got me through my first burn, my close friends now. I couldn't file this story earlier because we were braving a dust storm to set up a three-story pyramid built from scaffolding, which I'll be sleeping under all week.

So why did I come back and why am I here now? There is no place in the world where I can experience what happens here. It's a mobile octopus robot that shoots flames. It's the Gamelatron, a robotized orchestra of Indonesian gongs whose music is sequenced using a MIDI controller. It's Dr. Megavolt, a guy in a metal suit who plays with twin 1,000,000 volt tesla coils to create visible electricity. And they pull it off in the middle of a harsh desert with no electricity.

Silicon Valley and the entrepreneur community also retreat to Burning Man to reimagine what is possible. Eric Schmidt impressed Google during his interview process because he "was the only candidate who had been to Burning Man." Jeffery Taylor, the founder of, started one of the biggest dance camps at Burning Man called Root Society. On the drive into Burning Man, Peter Rive told his cousin Elon Musk he wanted to do an environmental startup, and Musk came up with the initial idea for SolarCity.

While I wait on my invitation to hang out in Musk's RV compound -- don't you think he owes it to me? -- I'm going to introduce you to the mad scientists behind the complex technology projects here. Expect dancing robots, glowing and flying jellyfish, 3-D imaging, and more.