Editorial: The Current Business Land Rush in the Blockchain-Based Virtual Worlds (and the Forgotten Lessons from Second Life’s Corporate Boom)

It’s déjà vu all over again.

—Yogi Berra (source)
The virtual office of accounting firm Prager Metis International in Decentraland (image source: The Wall Street Journal)

This morning, I read a January 7th, 2022 article in The Wall Street Journal titled Accounting Firms Scoop Up Virtual Land in the Metaverse (archived version), which discusses how PricewaterhouseCoopers and Prager Metis made acquisitions last month to begin operating in the metaverse. Please go over there and read the article in full; below is the section pertinent to my editorial today:

Businesses across industries, including real estate, technology and cryptocurrency, have been purchasing digital land on platforms such as Decentraland and the Sandbox. Executives have started drafting business plans for operating in those virtual worlds, which are typically conceived by videogame developers.

Prager Metis International LLC, a New York-based accounting and advisory firm, on Friday said it opened a virtual three-story property on a site it bought for nearly $35,000 in late December. The firm, which operates 23 physical offices in the U.S., Europe and Asia, made its purchase on the Decentraland platform in partnership with Banquet LLC, a firm that funds and manages blockchain ventures.

Prager Metis plans to use its virtual building to advise companies and other new and existing clients on tax and accounting issues, Chief Executive Glenn Friedman said. The firm expects that many of its clients, particularly those in the entertainment and fashion industries, will seek its services in the metaverse as more companies decide to conduct business there, according to Mr. Friedman. “If the metaverse is going to replace the internet, then certainly business is going to use it,” he said.

Other accounting firms are also venturing into the metaverse. PricewaterhouseCoopers in late December said its Hong Kong unit acquired virtual real estate in the Sandbox, a subsidiary of software firm Animoca Brands Corp., for an undisclosed amount.

“The Metaverse offers new possibilities for organizations to create value through innovative business models, as well as introducing new ways to engage with their customers and communities,” William Gee, a partner at PwC Hong Kong, said in a statement.

And, like Yogi Berra once famously said, I got déjà  vu all over again.

In November 2017, in the earliest days of the RyanSchultz.com blog, I wrote:

I still remember the crazy heyday of Second Life, with the hype machine set to maximum, from 2006 to 2008. Everybody was going on about how virtual worlds in general, and Second Life in particular, were going to revolutionize business and education. News organizations like Reuters, countries like Sweden, and big corporations like American Apparel and IBM trooped into SL and set up sims.

(Of course, most of those organizations trooped out of SL just as quickly as they trooped in, leaving the field to the many mom-and-pop businesses that give SL its vibrancy.)

And in July of 2018, I wrote:

Second Life went through a period (around 2006-2007) where many real-life companies, like American Apparel and Playboy, trooped in and set up shop. Almost all of those corporations left after a year or two, not seeing any real value for their investment of time and money in SL.

But, you may say; but!! It’s different this time around, you may say. And you may well be right. Perhaps, this time, all the stars will align and people will create an avatar, go into a social VR platform or a virtual world like Decentraland or the Sandbox, figure out how to dress themselves, move around and talk, locate your virtual office or shop, and actually transact business. But, for anybody who was in Second Life between 2006 and 2008, during a previous iteration to the current metaverse hype cycle, this all has a rather familiar ring to it.

Businesses who want to set up a virtual office or shop in any metaverse platform—Decentraland, the Sandbox, venerable old Second Life, wherever—need to stop and ask themselves the following pertinent questions (and yes, a consultant like Cathy Hackl, Godmother of the Metaverse, would probably charge you a pretty penny for this advice, but hey, me, I’m going to give it to you for free!):

  1. What is your use case? Prepare a written-down description of the ways in which a user would interact with your virtual office. Yes, I’m serious! WRITE IT DOWN AND THINK IT OUT. A formal use case would establish the success scenarios, the failure scenarios, and any critical variations or exceptions to your plan, before you commit.
  2. Who is your target audience? Who are you hoping to reach by setting up a virtual office in social VR or a virtual world, that you you wouldn’t already reach? NFT enthusiasts? Crypto bros? Your Joe or Jane Average consumer? If there’s a mismatch between your target audience and the people who actually use the platform, you need to take a step back and rethink this. You shouldn’t expect a sudden influx of people who are different from the demographic of the current userbase, either.
  3. How technically savvy is your target audience? For example, during Second Life’s boom, many academic libraries set up virtual versions, only to later close them when they realized that expecting people to install and set up a Second Life client, just to look for information or ask a reference question, was too steep a learning curve. In other words, the price of admission was too high. (Yes, I know, Decentraland is web-based, but that, too, has a learning curve and its tricky set-up bits, particularly if you are new to cryptocurrencies, blockchain, and NFTs.)
  4. Will this virtual office be staffed? Or will it just be a place where an avatar can get information, kind of like a fancy, three-dimensional brochure, but with NFTs and videos? 😉 And, if you do plan to staff it, will you have posted office hours? Keep in mind that most metaverse platforms operate 24/7/365; will you have people working in shifts? At the same time, paying someone to hang around in Decentraland or the Sandbox, waiting for someone to wander in, could potentially be expensive.
  5. Seriously, ask yourself why you are doing this, and keep digging until you hit bedrock! Are you setting up a virtual office just for the bragging rights? Are you just responding to all the recent articles about the blockchain-based metaverse which are triggering your FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out)? Are you responding to someone else’s FOMO (e.g. your CEO or CTO)?

    So go look into the mirror, and ask yourself why. And whatever answer you give, keep asking yourself why, again and again and again, until you strip out all the corporate-speak and bafflegab and bullshit and you hit your underlying bedrock, your true motivations and intentions. THEN act.

There, you see? Auntie Ryan could definitely give the Godmother of the Metaverse a run for her money! 😜 (Seriously, love you, Cathy! Don’t change what you’re doing!)

Look, people (and by “people”, I mean corporations); I’m not saying don’t do this. I’m saying: if you choose to do this, then carefully think about what you are doing, and why you are doing it, before you jump in feet-first, and start flailing about. And (shout-out to Cathy!) hire consultants who will advise you. (Hey, forget Cathy, hire me! Me!!!)

I remain optimistic that this iteration of the metaverse will take off (unlike Second Life’s relatively short-lived and now seemingly-forgotten corporate boom). But my optimism is tempered by my 14 years of experience in SL…I often joke that I got my Ph.D. in the Metaverse from the University of Second Life! 😉 That experience informs my perspective as I passionately explore and write about the ever-evolving metaverse on this blog.

Second Life is the perfect model of a mature, fully-evolved metaverse platform, which newer entrants into the marketplace would be wise to study, and learn from both its many success stories and its failures, controversies, and scandals.

Teaching Business Students Using Social VR at Temple University

Ronald Anderson, dean of the Fox School of Business at Temple University, using a VR headset (image source)

The Fox Business School at Temple University in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, is among the first business schools in the world to teach courses in virtual reality, using a custom-built social VR platform. University newspaper The Temple News reports:

As Divya Pawar sat in her Fintech, Blockchain and Digital Disruption class listening to the lecture, she was able to get a good view of Pollet Walk from her seat. When class ended, she took off her Oculus Quest Virtual Reality headset and continued working at home in her off-campus apartment.

“It’s like you’re in a Temple classroom, like you’re sitting with your classmates,” said Pawar, a master’s of business administration student. “It was an amazing experience, it kind of transforms your space.”  

In March 2020, the Fox School of Business first held Fintech, Blockchain and Digital Disruption, a graduate-level course that is offered once per year and is among the first MBA-level courses to feature a VR format among colleges and universities in the United States. Although the course operates virtually, it incorporates classroom discussions along with virtual visual elements from Temple’s Main Campus that create an environment comparable to the traditional, on-campus experience…

Students can participate in Fintech, Blockchain and Digital Disruption remotely by wearing Oculus Quest VR headsets. With the headsets on, students sit at virtual seats in a lecture hall, surrounded by avatars of other members of the class, and can talk to one another through the headsets as they get views of Temple’s Main Campus outside the lecture hall’s windows…

Students receive the Oculus Headsets in the mail and return them to the Fox School of Business after they complete the course.

Bora Ozkan, a finance professor, teaches Fintech, Blockchain and Digital Disruption and appears in the center of the virtual lecture hall as an avatar where he can see students raise their hands and actively engage with one another.

Zoe Rosenberg reported on the program for The Inquirer:

Before the pandemic made online schooling a necessity, Bora Ozkan theorized that students learning remotely would be more engaged in virtual reality. Ozkan, a finance professor at Temple University and academic director of its online MBA, has tested that belief since March 2020, when he launched the class Fintech, Blockchain and Digital Disruption in a virtual reality, or VR, program.

It took 18 months to research the technology and build the course at a cost upward of $100,000. The finished product was completed with the help of Glimpse Group, a New York-based virtual reality and augmented reality company.

It’s an investment that Temple’s Fox Business School was excited to make because university officials hope it can become a model for higher education VR courses.

“When I teach classes on Zoom, there’s a disconnect,” Ozkan said. “When we asked students last year to compare their VR experience to Zoom, almost all of them said [VR] is better or much better. Which is why we decided to offer it again this year.”

The business school will continue offering this course in VR, and plans to incorporate virtual reality into other courses as well:

Stephen Orbanek, a Fox Business School spokesman, said it plans to offer the VR course every spring semester, as long as there’s demand. The university is also looking into expanding its VR offerings, with an eye toward creating courses in its departments of Strategic Management, Human Resources Management, and Legal Studies.

A March 2020 article on the project from the Fox School of Business website provides more details on the first offering of the course:

On March 19, [professor Bora Ozkan] will begin teaching Fintech, Blockchain and Digital Disruption in the virtual reality (VR) format as part of the Fox Online MBA program. The seven-week accelerated course is believed to be one of the first MBA-level courses to be offered in a VR format anywhere in the United States. The 20 students enrolled in the course can take it anywhere in the world. All they need is the Oculus VR headset that they received in the mail after signing up for the course.

Once they put the headset on is when things get interesting.

The course takes place in two VR classrooms; one mirrors a traditional auditorium-style lecture hall while the other is in an outside park. The details are meticulous. For example, benches in the park actually have iron fittings that are embedded with a Temple T.

Students are visualized with virtual avatars. The instructor, in this case, Ozkan, is live-streamed from a video studio into the center of the virtual lecture hall. Ozkan can see the virtual classroom as he lectures. He’s aware of when a student avatar raises his or her hand. For students, the scene basically mirrors that of an in-classroom lecture hall.

Of course, Temple University will need to keep on top of ever-changing technology to run the course, as a reporter Paige Gross notes:

There are some caveats to the technology, like any other mediums. First, the Oculus VR headsets cost about $300 per set, and Temple currently is in possession of about 20 of them. They’re loaned out to the fintech students and eventually will need to be upgraded. And they’re subject to technical difficulties like any of the technology we lean on right now; I hopped into the class late because the headsets wouldn’t connect to Fox’s Wi-Fi for a bit.

Still, for all the technical hurdles that have to be overcome, the fact that the classes can be offered to students around the world opens up brand new markets for the Fox Business School. (One of the students taking the fintech course was in Vietnam!)

Editorial: The Wall Street Journal Looks at Breakroom and Other Virtual Office Spaces as an Emerging Business Trend

Yesterday, in an article titled Miss Your Office? Some Companies Are Building Virtual Replicas, the American financial newspaper The Wall Street Journal took a look at a current trend: businesses setting up virtual office spaces for their employees who are working remotely because of the pandemic:

Stay-home orders and the shuttering of workplaces have given corporate employees some respite from getting dragged into time-wasting water-cooler conversations.

But some companies and their employees don’t want to leave everything about the office behind, it turns out, and are replicating their offices in “SimCity”-like simulations online.

And, among the companies that WSJ reporter Katie Deighton spoke to was Sine Wave Entertainment, the makers of Sinespace and Breakroom:

Sine Wave Entertainment Ltd. last month introduced Breakroom, a virtual-world product for remote workforces. It can accommodate all-hands meetings, secure one-on-ones and document sharing. Clients of the product include Virgin Group Ltd. and Torque Esports Corp.

Many customers initially assume they will recreate their offices, then realize they can make tweaks that would be impossible in the real world, said Sine Wave CEO Rohan Freeman.

“We spend our lives wishing we were working in open, sunny campuses with butterflies outside,” Mr. Freeman said. “Here you can realize that dream.”

Although clients can use Breakroom to create their office utopia, the platform also enables real-world elements such additional privileges for senior staff. In Sine Wave’s own virtual world, senior members can lock the boardroom, which is located on top of a hill overlooking the rest of the office.

A meeting in Breakroom (source: WSJ)

The Wall Street Journal article is a signal that corporate America—and indeed, businesses in countries around the world—are increasingly interested in virtual worlds. As the saying goes, “A rising tide lifts all boats“. I predict that Breakroom and a host of competing YARTVRA* firms are going to see a continuing boom in interest and inquires as the coronavirus pandemic drags on.

*YARTVRA is an acronym I coined that stands for Yet Another Remote Teamwork Virtual Reality App, which I am still hoping will catch on!


This blogpost is sponsored by Sinespace, and was written in my role as an embedded reporter for this virtual world (more details here). 

Vizible: A Brief Introduction

Vizible is business-oriented VR creation and collaboration software by a company called WorldViz. According to an article in their knowledge base:

There are two parts to Vizible, one to create VR content and another to experience it. With Vizible Presentation Designer, you create rich, interactive VR presentations with no coding. Then, with Vizible Presenter, you hold sessions, multi-user gatherings inside of your presentations for real time communication and collaboration in virtual reality.

Participants of Vizible sessions can grab and inspect 3D models, mark up the space with virtual pencils, use laser-pointers, and more. Vizible is used for business meetings, education/training, design review, demos, walkthroughs, and all kinds of online collaboration.

Vizible works on desktop PC, Oculus Rift, HTC Vive, and Windows Mixed Reality headsets. You can follow the company via Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, or on YouTube. If you’re interested, you can contact the company to arrange for a demonstration of Vizible (unfortunately, there’s no pricing information on their website).