Watercooler: When Businesses Are Scrambling For Solutions, Some Turn Up Short

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With companies, brands and institutions, large and small, being forced to conjure up all of their creative resources to remain afloat—and, if possible, profitable—during the coronavirus pandemic, unfortunately some efforts to keep consumers engaged may not have gone as planned. Falling under this description is Grad Alley, a virtual block party held on May 19 by New York University to provide the experience of its annual block party to honor graduates. Grad Alley, dubbed VR Grad Alley, was described by The Verge as “a low-res recreation of places associated with the school,” with students citing bleakness, confusion and discontent with the virtual space.

To enter the virtual world of Grad Alley, students were required to create an avatar—not a realistic or human-like avatar, but a robotic, legless being with an unsettling, bug-eyed stare. Students could choose from a collection of skins to customize their being, or they could upload their own photos to avatars—something that often didn’t work well. Once in Grad Alley, students could enter “rooms” to partake in different activities, like chess and trivia. But the low quality of Grad Alley and the unfamiliarity of this virtual world was off-putting to many NYU seniors, who shared experiences with the The Verge that ranged from their avatar essentially getting “lost” in the game to being unable to hear other students unless their avatars were nearly on top of one another. Users also cited exceptionally long loading times. One student said the game was “depressing,” with “a frustrating kind of isolation to it all”—a statement hinting to the purpose of the overall effort, which was largely to combat feelings of isolation produced by closures and stay-at-home mandates.

Jason Hollander, a spokesperson for NYU, told The Verge that the school only had a few weeks to create the virtual world, which required the ability to serve all 20,000 graduates and students of all abilities. NYU’s Game Center was not involved in the creation of Grad Alley—something Hollander did not speak on—but it was a collaborative between Manhattan-based design team Jump Into the Light, faculty in the NYU Future Reality Lab, the Steinhardt Games for Learning Institute, the NYU Moses Center for Student Accessibility and the NYU Ability Project. It was the school’s first attempt at social virtual reality, Hollander said. Over the four-hour event, approximately 3,000 students logged on.

NYU’s Grad Alley blunder provides a look at what can happen when there is an immediate need to provide a similar experience using different tools. The institution shows good intentions by designing a virtual space for its graduates to gather, but likely did not have sufficient time to design to the level intended, or to match students’ expectations. The virtual world gave the feel of a project that had been rushed, and even though all of the grommets were in place—students were brought together in a virtual space—it could have been done better; an ode to the importance of proper planning, especially when entering uncharted territory.  

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Danielle Renda is associate editor of PPB.

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