NYU's virtual reality grad celebration was creepy and barren — I walked around in an angry-looking avatar and almost no one showed up

Theo WaytThe author’s avatar taking a selfie in front of the ‘Washington Square Arch.’
  • Theo Wayt is a reporter who’s written for the Associated Press, NBC News, The New York Post, Vice, and Gothamist; he also recently graduated from New York University.
  • NYU was the first to host a virtual reality graduation party, allowing 2020 graduates to fly around a simulated “Virtual Reality Grad Alley.”
  • 2020 graduates could design avatars and interact with each other in blocky version of New York City hotspots, but very few people showed up.
  • The school’s administration said there will be an in-person commencement ceremony once the pandemic passes, and students are saying NYU should do more to support students now.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

Universities around the world have cancelled, postponed, or modified graduation plans due to the coronavirus pandemic. But as far as I know, my school, New York University, was the first to host a virtual reality graduation party.

Theo WaytTheo WaytThe author, Theo Wayt.

On the day before graduation during years when there aren’t deadly pandemics, NYU typically hosts a “grad alley” celebration, a massive block party in Manhattan’s Washington Square Park. But since New York City is still under lockdown and NYU students like me have dispersed across the world, the university wanted to find a way to let graduates “make some last NYU memories together,” according to an official NYU email.

Grad Alley went virtual

Theo WaytThe ‘Virtual Reality Grad Alley.’

The result was this Tuesday’s “Virtual Reality Grad Alley,” a bizarre online experience where young people graduating into the worst job market since the Great Depression could fly angry-looking avatars around blocky, low-res versions of the Empire State Building, the Statue of Liberty, and the Washington Square Arch. It was supposed to be a pre-party for Wednesday’s 25 minute-long livestreamed commencement ceremony.

2020 grads could log in from all over

Theo WaytA perspective from the top of NYU’s Bobst Library.

The browser-based program was compatible with VR headsets, computers, tablets, and phones. It was open only to members of the class of 2020 from the hours of 5 to 9 p.m. E.T., and we logged on through our school emails.

Very few people went

Theo WaytThe chess corner of Washington Square Park. Drug users usually hang out here, but they weren’t included in NYU’s VR version.

But few members of my graduating class actually showed up, making NYU’s digital version of New York almost as empty and creepy as the city itself.

We chose our avatars to walk around in

Theo WaytSome of my avatar options.

After I logged on through my school email, I was asked to choose an avatar. Options included a leopard print outfit, a hoodie, and a panda. But since I wasn’t able to don a purple NYU graduation robe IRL, I chose an avatar that was wearing one.

I was then dropped into an empty Washington Square Park. I flew my avatar around, listening to the game’s soundtrack: ambient city traffic sounds and a melancholy harp.

But I did meet someone new

Theo WaytMy new friend zhanggggggggg before they disappeared.

After a few minutes, another member of the class of 2020 joined my server. Their display name was “zhanggggggggg,” and they had chosen the same purple-robed avatar as me. I decided to chat them up.

“hey, you’re the first person I’ve seen on here,” I said

Theo WaytMy new friend saying ‘bye.’

“same here. i thought there would be more people lol,” they replied.

I asked where zhanggggggggg was logging in from, and they said they were still in New York City.

“have you been to the real life washington square recently?” I asked. I was hundreds of miles away in my childhood bedroom in Memphis, Tennessee.

“yes, two three days ago,” they replied.

“how does it compare?”

“still a lot of ppl. hanging out. skateboarding. singing. performing. just like the old days.”

A few minutes later, zhanggggggggg said, “I’ll go and meet my friends. nice meeting you here!”

The whole environment resembled a barren New York

Theo WaytLiberty Island.

Zhanggggggggg’s purple avatar disappeared. Alone once again, I decided to check out the Statue of Liberty.

No one was there.

Same for our school library, a trivia lounge, and a rooftop dance club next to a purple Empire State Building

Theo WaytThe trivia lounge.

Virtual Reality New York looked as desolate as recent photos I’ve seen of the real thing – although seeing familiar locations rendered digitally was a different kind of uncanny creepiness.

Other members of the class of 2020 I spoke to agreed

Theo WaytAn empty rooftop dance party.

“It was just very Black Mirror and dystopian,” said Nicole Rosenthal, 21, a journalism and psychology double-major from Long Island, NY. “You’re trying to simulate being ‘there’ and having all these cathartic feelings but it just doesn’t translate.”

Rebecca Karpen, a 22-year-old who studied “populist rhetoric and the crisis of narrative,” also criticised the event. “I was only able to convince one friend of mine to join,” Karpen said. “Everyone else either wasn’t interested, had technical difficulties, or had gone on it and hated it. There was no one there.”

Karpen grew up in Greenwich Village near Washington Square Park and was quarantining with her family nearby. “It’s weird for me,” she said. “I can still access the actual grad alley anytime I want, even if it is in a mask.”

Attendance at the event was underwhelming

Theo WaytBobst Library.

According to a press release from Jump Into The Light, the studio that developed the VR grad alley for NYU, “many thousands of students” were expected to attend. Yet throughout the four hour event, I never observed more than two hundred students logged on at once.

Thomas Miritello, a 21-year-old music technology major from Westchester, NY, skipped both the VR grad alley and Wednesday’s live-streamed commencement.

“It feels wrong for me to partake in a virtual graduation ceremony for people, myself included, who will likely not make the world run much smoother,” Miritello said. He explained that the coronavirus pandemic is making “fundamentally inapplicable abstract humanities topics” taught at NYU seem trivial in comparison to the work of essential workers like grocery store clerks, truckers, and pharmacists.

Students have criticised NYU’s response to COVID-19 in general

Theo WaytA treetop selfie with another graduate.

It’s unclear how much NYU paid Jump Into The Light, which developed the event alongside NYU’s Visual Storytelling Team and a group of students. But the university’s coronavirus response has come under fire from graduate student groups demanding increased summer stipends, extra degree funding, and additional assistance for international students, according to Gothamist.

In response to NYU’s announcement of the VR grad alley, graduate student group “Sick-Out NYU” tweeted, “Ummmmm…. we would LOVE to know how much these grim avatars cost.”

NYU spokesperson Shonna R Keogan praised the event as one of the largest interactive VR events ever to date, but did not say how much it cost to produce.

Waiting for a graduation IRL

Theo WaytA photo from the selfie lounge.

The NYU administration has told students there will be an IRL commencement ceremony once the coronavirus pandemic passes. I plan on attending. Until then, I have screenshots of my purple-robed avatar. I wish he didn’t look so sad.

This story has been updated with a comment from a NYU spokesperson.

Theo Wayt is a reporter who’s written for the Associated Press, NBC News, The New York Post, Vice, and Gothamist.

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