Worlds Collide, Virtually as “Mixed Reality” Workshops in Maryland Break New Ground in Pofessional Education

The lines that divide reality from virtual reality were blurred June 18 by a pair of groundbreaking events at the inaugural Maryland Business and Accounting Expo.

The first, a two-hour workshop titled “The Future of Small Business and What CPAs Need to Know,” was the first-ever continuing professional education (CPE) program offered for CPAs in Second Life, a virtual world that allows people throughout the world to network and collaborate in a three-dimensional environment. The second, titled “The Virtual World of Second Life,” featured a speaker who addressed the Baltimore-based audience from within Second Life from his office in

San Francisco.

The workshops were examples of what are known as “mixed-reality” events – sessions that take place in real life and a virtual world simultaneously (see our post at www.slacpa.org). Those attending the Expo participated in the workshops in a real-life conference center; at the same time, people from around the world listened to the same speakers, viewed the same slides and asked questions from a virtual conference center in Second Life. Those with microphones could use Second Life’s voice functionality to chat with the presenters; those without microphones used Second Life’s chat application to ask questions and offer comments.

The Second Life audiences provided a glimpse of the potential of such presentations. “The Future of Small Business” was attended by CPAs in Maryland, Michigan, Texas, Hawaii, Colorado

, and California, drawn by the ability to attend an out-of-town CPE session without leaving their offices. The second workshop’s audience was even more far-flung, with people attending from a number of U.S.states as well as the United Kingdom, the Netherlands and Estonia. Audience members included Accounting educator’s, students, CPAs, State CPA Society Staff, and business people.

The events were the latest of the MACPA’s “mixed reality” events. In January, the association hosted an event simultaneously in real life and Second Life as part of its annual Educators’ Conference. In March, the MACPA hosted a similar event as part of the CFO Rising Conference in Orlando. Special demos have taken place for Towson University and Johns Hopkins’ Carey School of Business. Upcoming “mixed reality” events include a session for the Association for the Advancement of College Schools of Business (AACSB) International Conference in St. Petersburg, Florida on June 30th and a session on XBRL in San Francisco with the SF Financial Executive Networking Group (SF FENG) on July 15th (details can be found on our blog www.cpaisland.com).

The sessions are making a prophet of John Zdanowski, chief financial officer of Linden Lab, the company that created Second Life. Zdanowski, who presented “The Virtual World of Second Life” from his Second Life offices, addressed a virtual MACPA event earlier this year and said, “In the future, as the technology continues to improve, I expect to see virtual worlds become immersive experiences that are difficult to differentiate from the real world.” He also predicts a time in the not-too-distant future when the use of virtual worlds is as prevalent as the use of e-mail today.

Make no mistake: It’s difficult to ignore Second Life’s business potential. According to Zdanowski, Second Life residents spent more than 28 million cumulative hours in the virtual world in February alone, and they own more than 1 billion square meters of virtual space. More important, they have created almost 200 terabytes of digital goods, with more than 50,000 “in-world” businesses claiming virtual profits. A recent Journal of Accountancy article offers further details about Second Life’s economy and business potential.

In short, virtual business is soaring, and that means it’s time for CPAs to pay attention. Just ask Byron Patrick, information technology director at Katz, Abosch, Windesheim, Gershman & Freedman, which in 2005 became the first CPA firm to establish a presence in Second Life.

“We realized there is a real economy growing in there,” said Patrick, “and every good economy needs CPAs, so we figured we needed to be there, too.”

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