The company is in Singapore. The owners are in Thailand, Moscow, and Shanghai. What’s the most convenient location for the annual corporate meeting? Hint: it’s got dragons, a spaceport, and a red light district. You might think – China. But the company actually picked a place much cheaper to travel to: Second Life.
So, this August, the shareholders of Masters ‘O’ Equity Asset Management will be logging into the Second Life virtual world platform, and meeting at the company’s virtual office.
“Normally, we just send out the annual report by email — we don’t discuss anything,” said company president Jason Ng. But after experimenting with Second Life and with virtual worlds based on the open source OpenSim platform, Ng has been having quite a few meetings virtually.
“This is as close to real life as it gets,” Ng said. “Everyone is able to sit around, able to talk and discuss issues face-to-face.”
Ng was speaking to me from his office in Second Life, where he also plans to create a community for one of his publications, OptionsTradingpedia. Later, we continued the conversation on OSGrid’s Business Center region, which runs on the OpenSim platform.
“We used to run a [Website] forum, but that didn’t work out well because of all the spam,” he said. “I’m always looking for ways to make the community more interactive, more personal. I think that Second Life really provides this.”
Masters ‘O’ Equity Asset Management Private Ltd. is hedge fund management company, incorporated in 2004, with around US$20 million in assets under management.
Ng admits that the virtual world isn’t for everyone, and that he feels lonely sometimes.
“Most of the time I’m here alone,” he said. “None of the guys I know in real life know Second Life. We’re so busy in real life, who cares about Second Life? Linden should change its name. ‘Second Life’ doesn’t sound good.”
It may take a few years before virtual reality is widely accepted, he said.
Meanwhile, he’s got his virtual office, which he also uses for meetings with his options trading students, and he’s already invested in several virtual world projects. He also has a plan to do a big project in OpenSim – but he’s not ready to go public with that just yet.
The fact that Second Life is associated with role playing games, casinos and red light districts isn’t helping its reputation, he said.
“I can actually see the trend leaning more towards OpenSim than Second Life,” he said. He also pointed to the distributed nature of the Internet as an example. “If you look at how websites are run these days, everyone runs their own websites, and runs their own servers.”
OpenSim, by comparison, with its open architecture, is likely to have more features, and grow faster, than Second Life, he said. However, Second Life has a functioning economy, he added, and this is very attractive in the short term.
“I’m committed to some projects here,” he said. “I’m running over 8,000 square meters of rental land and also running a virtual convention area. I’m trying to do some of the real world real estate investments here… see if I can make any money. But in fact, right now, for me this is fun – I’m really seeing how this whole thing works. I’m not going to commit tens of thousands of real dollars here.”
However, even though Second Life is the farthest along of the virtual worlds in terms of its economy, it still lags behind what is possible in real life, he said.
“You don’t have real estate agents doing the work for you,” he said. “You have to find advertising channels yourself. Information sharing in Second Life is very lacking. The search function is so poor – its based purely on traffic right now, so it can be easily manipulated. It’s a waste of time to try those channels.”
In addition, he said, as more land becomes available in OpenSim-based competitors, he expects land prices in Second Life to drop very dramatically in the not-so-distant future.
And, unlike in OpenSim, Second Life has no way to link different worlds, he added.
“It feels like the Internet back in the BBS days, when no BBS linked to any other BBS,” he said.
He has found people in Second Life very helpful, though, and willing to share their knowledge – even with competitors, he said.
But some of his old-world trading skills are already coming in useful, he said.
For example, he’s located a piece of land that would normally go for L$$4,000 a month – or about US$32. But it was located next to a helicopter factory.
“That made it messy and noisy, and I managed to get the adjacent land for less than half the price,” he said. The helicopter folks shut down their operation right after he bought the land. “Now I’m confident I’ll be able to sell it for a higher price,” he said. “I don’t like flipping, I prefer to rent, but if somebody has a good deal, I’m open to selling, too. I’m an opportunistic person. When I see a good deal, I’ll try to create value.”
One way he hopes to develop value is by creating products and services currently missing.
For example, he’s surprised that PayPal isn’t directly available in the virtual worlds yet.
“And they need something like Google here – this is what I intend to do,” he said. “I bought this really big piece of land, which I plan to develop into a teleport hub here. What a teleport hub does, is exactly like a directory – where people can come, search through different categories, punch on a category, and go to places.”
He said that his business customers usually feel very lost when they first arrive in Second Life. “They don’t know how to get around.”
An easy-to-navigate directory will help solve this problem, he said.
“I do expect most of the things that we’re used to in websites right now to be in virtual worlds in the future,” he said.
For example, he said, a set of virtual office applications would be very useful. Although its possible to bring PowerPoint slides or videos or whiteboards into Second Life and OpenSim, it’s hard to do real work on this platform.
He expects to see productivity applications eventually migrate to virtual worlds – the same way that they’re already migrating from desktops to the Web.
“Right now, what people are doing is just sitting around,” he said. “Most of the activity takes place outside of the virtual world.”
With the Internet, this process took about twelve years, he added, so he’s not expecting anything to happen overnight.
“It will be our children’s generation that will make this big,” he said – though it could come sooner. “Technology moves at a pace that really baffles people.”
Ng’s colleagues, however, aren’t as receptive as he himself, he said. “Even if the infrastructure is up, if Google goes into OpenSim the next day, it may take ten years for people to catch up.”