Four students create means to a virtual graduation via Nexus platform

Areeq Hasan was looking forward to his graduation from The Lawrenceville School this month, with all of the ceremonies and celebrations that go along with it – until COVID-19 struck and wiped out all in-person plans for the Class of 2020.

The seniors – or Fifth Form students, which is the term used by the co-educational boarding school in Lawrence Township – will have virtual ceremonies. The campus has been closed since the outbreak of the pandemic, and the students have dispersed to their homes.

But out of the ashes of the canceled in-person ceremonies, Areeq and his sibling, Sarina Hasan, are using technology that has its roots in programming and game development to recreate the ceremonies online and give them a new twist.

Areeq and his friend, Alper Canberk, who is a junior at The Lawrenceville School, were invited to a virtual meeting with the assistant dean of students to discuss possible solutions to a virtual implementation of a long-time school tradition, Sarina said.

After the meeting, Areeq and Alper reached out to Ben Myers, a high school friend in Florida, and to Sarina. Areeq and Sarina, who is a sophomore at the Princeton Day School, live in Princeton, and Alper lives in Los Angeles. Ben lives in North Palm Beach, Florida.

Instead of sulking about the unexpected turn of events, the four friends brainstormed and came up with the idea of offering lifelike graduation ceremonies that used their interests in programming and game development.

With some help from family member Ilter Canberk, who is a research development engineer at Snapchat, the four friends created a multi-player, role-playing application that allows users to create a virtual community event experience, such as graduation, Sarina said.

Thus, Nexus was born.

The Nexus avatar creation system is highly customizable, with more than 40 modifiable features and high-end graphics to simulate an event as best as possible, Sarina said. An avatar is an electronic image that can be manipulated by the user.

Each avatar will have a bubble on top of its head that will display the live webcam feed of the actual player to integrate more face-to-face interaction, Sarina said.

“It is exciting that the application is going to be used by The Lawrenceville School for high school graduation ceremony events. The students can access it by downloading the Nexus application,” Sarina said.

After logging in, they can launch the application and design their own avatars. They can jump into a virtual campus, where they can talk and interact with their friends, Sarina said.

Nexus will be used for two end-of-year events at The Lawrenceville School. It was used for the May 23 pinning ceremony, in which the graduating Fifth Form students became members of the alumni society, and it will be used during the conferring of diplomas ceremony May 31.

Nexus will generate a profit, Sarina said. It contracts with companies and institutions to create virtual representations of community events, in addition to high school graduation ceremonies.

Nexus charges a flat fee to the institution organizing the event, but there is no cost to the players in the game or to the viewers who want to watch the ceremony as a YouTube live stream, Sarina said.

“With the profit, we keep the bare minimum to maintain our services. The rest will be donated to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for COVID-19 research,” Sarina said.