As a snowstorm bore down on Toronto, Aaron Grinhaus spoke fondly about the view from his office — not his law firm's building in midtown, but the one in the metaverse, where two park benches sit around a water fountain and the sky is a gradient of denimblue.
“It's a cute little office,” said the lawyer during a Jan. 25 interview.
“It's got a park bench and some nice foliage around. So we can sit outside and have meetings, even if it's (a) snowstorm in Toronto.”
Grinhaus’ Toronto law firm is one of a growing group of companies setting up offices in a virtual world called themetaverse to push the envelope and learn more about the emerging technology.
There’s a lot of hope pinned on the metaverse's future. Citigroup said it could represent a market of between $8 trillion and $13 trillion by 2030, while Goldman Sachs said as much as a third of the global digital market could shift to the metaverse as people increasingly make transactions there.
But it's not a guaranteed win just yet. Meta Inc., the parent company of Facebook, has bet big on the metaverse, going so far as to evoke the concept in its new corporate name. If Citigroup's prediction rings true, Meta will have been in on a developing business from the beginning, but in the meantime, its metaverse-focused division lost US$13.72 billion in 2022.
Grinhaus has been representing clients involved in bitcoin, cryptocurrency mining, and other ventures relating to cryptocurrencies and other emerging technologies for several years. He wrote the first legal textbook on blockchain law in 2019 — blockchain is the technology that underpins cryptocurrency transactions — and is the co-director of the Osgoode law school’s blockchain law program.
And in January 2022, his became the first Canadian law firm to open an office in the metaverse.
Grinhaus describes the metaverse as an internet-based environment where people can interact and transact.If that doesn’t sound too different from Facebook or Instagram, Grinhaus agrees. He sees the metaverse on a spectrum that includes social media at one end and virtual-reality headsets on the other.
“Most people have been engaged in the metaverse for years. And they didn't even know it,” he said.
Somewhere on that spectrum is the law firm’s Decentraland office. VR headsets are optional, but even without one it’s nothing like scrolling Facebook. Users walk around asavatars, exploring the space and interacting with each other, in a way that may seem familiar to anyone who has played "The Sims." The co-ordinates of Grinhaus' Decentraland office are posted on the firm's website.
In metaverse platforms such as Decentraland, where Grinhaus’ firm resides, plots of land are sold as NTFs, or non-fungible tokens — digital assets whose ownership is verified using the blockchain.
There’s a lot of opportunity for companies in the metaverse, said Brian Peterson, Americas Metaverse leader at EY Canada.
“We're pretty comfortable now having virtual meetings and virtual conversations. So I think it's a natural extension to try to get more human in our virtual experiences,” he said.
But Peterson said organizations need to consider how they will approach things like ability, identity and accessibility in these new spaces, something EY's metaverse lab is currently exploring.
“If an organization creates an office in the metaverse and they don’t design around some of those things, then it can actually be quite isolating for employees.”
The metaverse might seem far-fetched or gimmicky to some, but Grinhaus thinks it could become a significant tool for many professions, and increase accessibility if done right.
“People think it's very complicated, but it's not. It's just another point of contact,” he said.
But there are many things Grinhaus' law firm cannot do in the metaverse, at least not yet.
Lawyers have strict rules to follow. For example, they have an obligation to verify potential clients’ identities before entering into agreements that allow them to give legal advice. There are some digital platforms that enable this, but it’s up to the lawyer to determine whether they’re satisfied that they have confirmed a client’s identity, said Grinhaus, who errs on the side of caution.
“I'm not cutting any corners. What we are doing is we're augmenting or supplementing what we do today with the new technology to enhance communication."
There are similar rules around accepting money, said Grinhaus. His law firm has accepted cryptocurrency since 2016, and identity verification is important for financial transactions no matter the currency, he said.
The usefulness of the metaverse will depend on the business, Peterson said. As the technology improves, and the possible uses for the metaverse become more obvious, businesses need to think about what they are trying to achieve, he said.
“For this to really take off, the problems have to make sense and have to be worth coming together in a virtual environment to solve,” he said.
Some firms are seeking out those uses and potential challenges in a hands-on way.
In June, KPMG launched its metaverse collaboration hub for employees and clients in the U.S. and Canada. Unlike the Grinhaus office, it’s not on a decentralized platform, but on a private one licensed by the firm, the same way a company can get a license for Zoom or Microsoft Teams, explained Kareem Sadek, co-leader of the firm’s crypto assets and blockchain practice. That means you need an invitation to enter, allowing for more control and privacy.
Over the past seven months, the KPMG hub has hosted workshops, meetings, training, roundtables and other types of interactions, said Katie Bolla, who co-leads the firm’s metaverse services. Some people use headsets while others use a computer or mobile phone.
The first space people view when they enter the hub is a large, open area with waterfalls, tropical plants and an ambient soundscape.
“You can kind of stretch the boundaries of the physical reality to create something that is more immersive,” said Bolla.
For companies looking to better engage people, the metaverse can serve as a more interactive tool than video conferencing — and cheaper than flying people around, she said.
The intent is to get to a place where people use the hub more organically or casually, said Bolla, but right now KPMG makes an effort to schedule a variety of events and meetings there to encourage exploration.
“Even though it was launched last year with a single use case in mind, we haven't stopped building and developing and expanding on it,” she said.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 5, 2023.
Rosa Saba, The Canadian Press