How virtual can accountants actually become?

Last year, I wrote an article featuring Tom Hood, the executive director and CEO of the Maryland Society of CPAs, about his venture into Second Life, a virtual world in which two CPA Islands now exist.

I created an account and an avatar named AD Denimore to check out the space. Within a couple of weeks, I accidentally chopped off part of my hair. So I stopped using it.

Hood's son, James, created CPA Island as a senior in high school. Now two years from graduating with an accounting degree from Salisbury University, he wanted to teach me some basics.

It took an hour, but I finally retrieved my hair and figured out how to walk around. I just didn't understand why "A" was the button for left, "D" for right (Whatever happened to "L" and "R?")

Welcome to video gaming, where those controls are standard (and "F" means backward, "W" means forward).

Because James plays those games, learning Second Life was second nature to him. For me and some accountants the Society is trying to attract, it's like learning another language.

"The hardest part is getting them moving around using all the functions," James Hood says. "It's a steep learning curve, but once they learn it they like it a lot."

He's in the process of creating guides and video tutorials to help others get started.

And if enough people join, the benefits could be pretty decent.

Nine schools and several accounting and consulting firms - including Clifton Gunderson - already have signed on to be part of an Education Center in CPA Island 2, where students can go to learn more about potential careers.

The thought behind that is if these students are gaming and they see firms that are gaming, too, and therefore hip to the things they care about, they'll be interested in working for those firms.

But Second Life is also for the big kids.

Last June, the Second Life Association of CPAs held its first virtual CPE event, a mixed-reality conference with "live" attendees and avatars, many of whom Tom Hood said reported feeling as though they were at a "real" conference.

I plan to give a presentation at the Maryland Society's Expo this month and may present as AD Denimore as well as myself. So I asked the junior Hood to take me around the event center, which felt eerily like attending an actual conference. There were the traditional large screens with PowerPoints, microphones, rows of seats (purchased with Linden dollars) and an expo center with vendor-sponsored booths I could visit to learn more.

While I explored, James Hood ran around (flew actually) trying to show me "cool" things in different rooms. I lost him several times and he had to teleport me to his new locations.

I never felt so old and out of the loop in my life. Until, that is, he took me to the young professionals hangout, which looked much more like a hip lounge than a stuffy, gray-carpeted conference hall - and that was intentional.

"We wanted to have an area that was a lot more kickback and didn't look like a business center," the college student says.

Then I followed him into the club and was prompted to select from a series of dances. I selected "butt shake," which I thought looked fun.

"Can't you stop?" he asked innocently.

I'm definitely not cool.

Will accountants ever get to the point that they are completely virtual, eliminating the need for face-to-face human contact altogether? I hope not.

But I don't think it will happen anytime soon, considering my online demonstration ended when someone knocked on James Hood's door - unless that was his virtual roommate.