Credit: SPH

A prominent figure in both academia and the entertainment arena, Loretta Chen has cut her teeth as a university professor, theatre director, author and consultant. And now, the 45-year-old is setting up shop in the metaverse with the launch of Smobler Studios, a metaverse design agency headquartered in Singapore with offices in Canada, US and Bhutan.

Together with American reality TV star J.J. Lane, the company will be the first to launch a concert venue in The Sandbox, a metaverse and gaming ecosystem where people can play, build, own, and even monetise their virtual experiences.

“J.J. envisioned a venue that would not only host live music experiences, but also serve as a social hub to connect music lovers across the world. We were selected after he interviewed over 10 studios as our team understood what was needed to reinvent an industry,” says the co-founder. She emphasises that Smobler Studios is the builder – think of them as architects – and not the owner or producer of the venue.

“We’d like to think that what we’re working on will be the most dope given the scale of our build. There will be Greek- and Roman-inspired amphitheatres, elements of an F1 event and a large-scale aquarium.”

Brining communities closer together

What was it that drew Loretta To this space? As it is, having obtained her doctorate in theatre studies from the National University of Singapore and University of California, Los Angeles, she is currently an adjunct professor and also teaches brand marketing at Ritsumeikan Asia Pacific University in Japan, as well as Leadership, Performing Arts and Peace Studies at the University of Hawaii.

“I have always been a creator and entrepreneur, and I lean into creative spaces that challenge conventional wisdom or artfully question the status quo. The media have called me everything from ‘force of nature’ and ‘rebel with a cause’ to ‘critical arts entrepreneur’,” she says.

It’s easy to see why: The firebrand theatre director has staged plays like The Vagina Monologues (2008) and 251 (2007), which was about Singapore porn star Annabel Chong; had a stint as a radio personality, having hosted The Art of Lush on the now-defunct Lush 99.5FM; and written books such as an autobiography Woman On Top, and biography The Elim Chew Story, on the founder of local streetwear brand 77th Street. And now that she is based in Hawaii, her latest book is Inspiring Women of Hawaii, which celebrates 24 women who have “demonstrated the ability to rise above the ordinary”.

In addition, she has corporate experience, having previously worked as a creative director at a regional creative agency and production house, and a consultant to Druk Holdings and Investments, the commercial arm of the Royal Government of Bhutan.

“The metaverse appealed to me as I saw it as an opportunity to bring communities closer together, especially in a post-pandemic world where there has been a shift in living habits and lifestyles. It is akin to how 9/11 has forever changed the way we fly and engage security protocols.”

She explains that as one of the original builders in The Sandbox, Smobler Studios has “land” that it intends to use to create “a theme park-meets-expo where we’re able to bring brands into the metaverse”.

“Our idea was revolutionary because other players that entered the space when we did were gaming companies, while we wanted to create something for the community. More importantly, we wanted to espouse our values of diversity, equity and inclusion to solopreneurs, mumpreneurs and NGOs to enter the metaverse via the land we created, Cobbleland. It is priced lower for them so that there are lower barriers to entry, and we’ll help them with everything from the boarding process to the build,” she says.

And this is just the start: Smobler Studios is also helping The Food Bank Singapore make its metaverse debut with the auction of non-fungible tokens (NFTs) to raise funds to support 10,000 beneficiaries in Singapore with food and essential items for one year, and will be working with Aventis Graduate School
to “democratise graduate education in South-east Asia”, among other projects.

A goal to recruit more women

As Loretta will “unequivocally say that the metaverse is the best space to be a woman”, she hopes that everyone will get around to dipping their toes into its waters.

She lets on that she is also thrilled by the opportunities available to women in this space “because we get to co-create and recreate the future… [since] much of our current world as we know it is shaped by patriarchal values”.

“We have a chance to [fix] the imbalance given the rising affluence and education levels of women, and the ascension of diversity, equity and inclusion policies in the workplace. That said, we need a multi- pronged approach: We need funding, support, mentorship, representation, and the creation of more safe spaces. And that’s just one side of the equation – we also need women to have the courage to uplift one another.

“The landscape is dominated by movers and shakers, and folks who are futurists, dreamers and doers. Everyone is very supportive of one another. I was speaking to Sandy Carter, the ex- VP of Amazon Web Services who now runs Unstoppable Domains, and she is working to get more women in tech with her platform. I have already pledged the studio’s resources to encourage inclusion, diversity, equity, accessibility, sustainability, education and leadership to train the next generation of talent with the goal to onboard more women,” she affirms.

As for how she finds the time and energy to juggle so many different things on her plate, she attributes it to her ability to find inspiration in just about anything, and surrounding herself with like-minded people.

Credit: Her World Singapore

“Everything and anything inspires me to learn and be better. Creativity is a mindset, and I choose to see it in a myriad of dimensions and colours. I have a learner’s curiosity and am not afraid to fail,” she says. “Self-awareness is key, and the ability to prioritise is crucial. But it is most important to surround yourself with people who are better than you, and who complement you. I have been able to come this far because of everyone who has supported me, and I don’t ever take that for granted.”

What is the metaverse?

The metaverse is generally regarded as a network of 3-D virtual worlds where people can do things together through their virtual ‘avatars’. Video games like Fortnite, Roblox and Minecraft, which allow different players to interact in a shared virtual space, are early attempts, but over the past two years, the focus has shifted to purposes like social interaction, workplace collaboration and virtual events.

When Facebook was rebranded to Meta last October, Mark Zuckerberg spoke about how it is the future of the Internet, and is spending billions to build hardware and software that extends beyond traditional social media, one of which is a social virtual reality platform. Other large companies including Nvidia, Unity and Snap – as well as a variety of smaller companies and start-ups – are also building the infrastructure to create virtual worlds that closely mimic our physical life corporate, national and environmental settings.