For people who have only ever used smartphones, the SMS may seem like a dinosaur. But this technology, which paved the way for the apps we take for granted today, is having a nostalgia moment. At the end of 2021, the first ever SMS was auctioned off by Vodafone as an Non-Fungible Token (NFT) to raise money for a good cause. Silicon Luxembourg spoke to Torge Schwandt (nōted) and Misch Strotz (neon marketing technology), two of the local entrepreneurs involved in the project.
You helped to bring to life an NFT project that made the headlines around the world at the end of 2021. Can you tell us more about the project itself?
T.S. The whole project was based on an interesting background story: On December 3, 1992 software engineer Neil Papworth sent the first-ever text message to a mobile device. He sent it to the iconic Orbitel 901 phone of Vodafone Director Richard Jarvis who was at the company’s Christmas party at the time. The communication protocol he used would later become globally known as the “SMS” (Short Messaging Service) standard. This very first text message that was sent through the Vodafone network in the UK contained two words that perfectly fitted to the time of the year back then: “Merry Christmas”.
29 years later, on December 21, 2021, this first SMS in history was sold by Vodafone as an Non-Fungible Token (NFT) on the Ethereum blockchain for a good cause. The sale was conducted in Paris with the help of the first independent auction house in France, Aguttes. The so-called ‘hammer price’ (net price) was 107,000€, the total price of the auction that the buyer paid added up to €132,680 after all though. Vodafone will donate all proceeds from the auction to UNHCR, the United Nations’ agency that helps refugees in need around the world.
M.S. The NFT guarantees ownership of a unique and detailed replica of the original communication protocol that was written to send the first-ever SMS. The creation of the NFT and the overall media campaign around the project are the result of a collaboration between German, Swiss and Luxembourgish companies, including our teams at neon marketing technology and nōted as well as Gil Galvao (Founder of TIJO Studio).
Why was the first SMS such a historical moment and what was the first text message you ever sent?
T.S. Simply said: It changed the world in a tremendous way by adding another layer to how we communicate as human beings. The transmission of the ‘Merry Christmas’ text message eventually was a pivotal moment in the history of digital technology as it laid the foundation for everything that happened in the ‘mobile era’ afterwards. In 1999, seven years after the first SMS was sent, text messages could finally be exchanged across multiple networks by different telecom providers, which accelerated their usage and popularity.
Today, mobile messaging apps like WhatsApp are used by billions of people all over the world, using texts, videos, audio messages, and emojis to stay connected and do business with each other. I think I sent my first SMS at some point in 2002 or 2003 when I got my first mobile phone, a Nokia 3410. I can’t remember the exact content of the first message I sent though.
M.S. I also can’t remember the first text message I sent, but it was probably to flirt with a girl during high school. (laughing)
What was your brief for this project and how did you contribute?
T.S. In November last year, we were approached by German entrepreneur Daniel Sack who is Co-Founder & CEO of 361/DRX, a Cologne-based agency that is part of the Avantgarde group and offers services and software solutions related to Augmented Reality (AR) and blockchain technologies. He and his team were the lead agency for this project. They were looking for complementary partners with NFT expertise to pull off the project together. Besides our teams, Blockchain Trust Solutions from Switzerland was also heavily involved, for example.
Our brief was actually relatively simple: We were asked to leverage our individual skills and services to help Vodafone turn this idea into reality in a very short period of time.
I personally was responsible for the storytelling and helped with the press relations of the project, working closely with the communications teams at Vodafone and Aguttes. After all, the news about the NFT auction was published in numerous media outlets around the world in the second half of December. Among others, CNN, Yahoo News, Der Spiegel, Hypebeast, and Times of India covered it online and in print. Several TV and radio stations reported about it as well.
M.S. My team and I were mainly responsible for all the visuals of the project. With the help of Luxembourg-based motion designer Gil Galvao (Tijo Studios), we reproduced the historical moment through a 3D animation of the mobile phone that the first SMS was received on. We also created an animation of the communications protocol that was used. In addition, we produced various graphics and video teasers for Vodafone’s global campaign that announced the auction.
The buyer of the NFT, a Canadian entrepreneur, is now the owner of several digital assets, but not only: He also received a special physical frame with a screen by “Infinite Objects”, which we also had custom-made for the project. It immortalizes the first text message also offline by displaying the animation of the phone and the code. We also helped to create a certificate of authenticity that was signed by Vodafone’s Group CEO, Nick Read, which was part of the overall asset package that was auctioned off.
To what extent was it challenging? Presumably, it is quite different from the projects you would normally work on?
T.S. As part of the project group, together we managed to successfully deliver the project starting from the final confirmation by Vodafone to the auction within only 32 days. It wasn’t the first PR campaign related to NFTs we did in 2021, but definitely the most exciting and intense one. By working with an auction house in a strongly regulated market, we had to make sure that everything was compliant with the federal laws, among other things. Moreover, we had to coordinate and align the press campaign with Vodafone’s team across different geographies. It was challenging, but a lot of fun after all. At nōted, we will definitely continue to work on Web3 topics in the upcoming year.
M.S. As a technology company, we have initiated our pivot from focusing on Web2 platforms to working on Web3 projects in the second half of last year. So this project was a great ending to 2021 in this regard. In addition to my creative role with the digital assets, I also assisted with questions regarding NFTs and Web3. Daniel and his team at 361/DRX did a great job in bringing together and managing the different partners who all contributed what they are best at. Vodafone was an amazing client as all the people involved on their side were extremely reactive and motivated during the entire project. Only like this, it was possible to turn this idea into a reality in such a short amount of time. It definitely required a few late-night sessions but we are very happy to have been a part of it, especially as the proceeds go to charity. At neon marketing technology, we have several new NFT and Web3-related projects in the pipeline for 2022.
The auction sale raised €132,680 for the UNHCR. Do you think the interest in this NFT was a natural continuation of the evolution of NFTs or was there another element that sparked the public imagination?
T.S. I think the auction was a success as a lot of factors came nicely together by the end of last year. In the past 12 months, NFTs and the ‘Metaverse’ have finally entered the mainstream – even though a lot of people still remain sceptical about the development of ‘Web3’ technologies, which is absolutely understandable as a lot of scams and ‘unnecessary’ projects happen in the space. This NFT project happened for the right reasons at the right time with a nice story of a historic event behind it though. It was a great opportunity to leverage blockchain technology for a good cause, which a lot of people seem to have taken a particular interest in during the recent Christmas time.
M.S. You can see lots of different use cases for NFTs that go beyond ‘digital art’ by now. Just like startups, a lot of them will fail at some point, but many are also here to stay. As scarcity is an important value driver in the space, this NFT being a unique 1/1 edition of a historic digital artifact was also definitely a reason that a collector paid such a high amount for it.
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