May 27, 2020

Students Create Virtual Alternative For Canceled Live Commencements

By Anne Levin

While Gov. Phil Murphy announced on Tuesday that schools will have the opportunity to hold outdoor graduation ceremonies that comply with social distancing starting July 6, there has been much frustration this spring among high school and college seniors and graduate students who have had to put the all-important rite of passage on hold.

Some virtual commencements and convocations are being held, but they just don’t match the magic of the real thing. With that in mind, a group of Princeton-area high school students have come up with a way to provide a more realistic experience with a virtual application they are calling Nexus. Areeq Hasan, a senior at The Lawrenceville School; Alper Canberk, a Lawrenceville junior; Hasan’s sister Sarina Hasan, a sophomore at Princeton Day School; and Ben Myers, a friend in Florida who is a senior at The Dreyfoos School of the Arts, have been working on the application for the past several weeks.

The group describes Nexus as “a multiplayer application that allows users to have a virtual experience of a real-world event. Through a location-simulating platform importing a 3-D model from Google Earth, users are placed in a life-like model of the exact location they would have a physical event. The application features customizable avatars, immersive experience enhanced with a sound system to allow live, real-time voice communication, and interaction with other players.” 

The majority of the profits go directly to COVID-19 research. Nexus charges a flat fee of $200 for an institution organizing an event with more than 100 participants, with a $5 admission fee per user. Only the administrators are charged, not the players or viewers. “We take maybe five percent of the profits to maintain our services. The rest goes to the CDC (Centers for Disease Control) for research,” said Sarina.

The idea for  Nexus began to take shape after a virtual meeting between Lawrenceville Assistant Dean of Students Emilie Kosoff, Areeq, and Alper. “The assistant dean at Lawrenceville reached out to two of us and asked us to think about a virtual implementation of the graduation ceremony,” said Sarina, who was president of her freshman class at PDS. “Then my brother and I came up with this.”

The siblings used their experience in programming and use of the Unity gaming platform to base their avatars in the gaming model of The Lawrenceville School, which is holding a virtual graduation this Sunday. The program is based inside “the bowl,” the traditional, outdoor location for the school’s commencement ceremonies.

Each avatar will have a bubble on top of their head “which will display the live webcam feed of the actual player to integrate more face-to-face interaction,” according to an email from Sarina. “Other similar applications support meeting calls, pre-recorded videos (taping actual students crossing the stage ahead of time), and face-to-face interaction. Not only does Nexus integrate all such features (live and pre-recorded videos, meeting-calls, etc.) in-game, but it displays them in a location-based simulation to provide an experience similar to a physical event.”

To access the Lawrenceville graduation, for example, students can download Nexus, log in, and launch the application. Once they do, “they will design their respective avatars and jump into a virtual campus where they can talk and interact with their friends,” wrote Sarina. “Viewers, on the other hand, have the option to watch the ceremony as a YouTube Live stream, or can even enter the game as a spectator and view the event from a global perspective as long as the administrations admit them.”

The students were happy to take on the task once Kosoff approached them. “We were raised in the tradition to honor your upperclassmen, and that is the idea,” said Sarina. “Honoring them graduating is very, very important. It marks the end of an era, and we were raised to look forward to that. It’s a very special tradition, not just to us but to students everywhere.”

The colleagues have approached several schools, and feedback to Nexus has been positive. “Not just Lawrenceville, but a lot of universities have reached out to us,” said Sarina. “It is really coming together well, and we’re super excited that people are so interested. We have found that students are much more inclined to take part in something like this than Zoom.”

The coronavirus and resulting lockdown have been “devastating” to students looking forward to commencement ceremonies. “Graduation is the day you break free and go on to a new life,” said Sarina. “But rather than sulk, we have the resources to create some sort of alternative that allows students to be in their location and be with their friends on that day, even though not in person. We need to be proactive about it and realize the best things we can do.”