The following article was originally posted on our sister site, CONVRG, which aims to inspire experiential creators with amazing work from across the wide world of experience.
One of the promises of modern technology was that we would be brought closer together across the world.
But we all know what happened instead. Rather than promote shared understanding, social media and other connective technologies have magnified division and misinformation.
Perhaps that’s why, in a time fraught with division and nasty social media exchanges, Shared_Studios invites us to take a moment and choose shared vulnerability in their experience Portals.
Portals began as a shared experiment between colleagues Amar C. Bakshi and Michelle Moghtader. Having met during a stint at a major news network, they went separate ways but remained in touch. A few years later, as Michelle covered the Middle East as a journalist, she got a call from Amar.
“And he said, ‘Hey, I have this idea. Imagine stepping inside of a space, and it feels like you’re in the same room with somebody you had never met,” said Michelle, now co-founder and Director of Global Development at Shared_Studios.
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”And he said, ‘Hey, I have this idea. Imagine stepping inside of a space, and it feels like you're in the same room with somebody you had never met.Michelle MoghtaderCo-Founder and Director of Global Development of Shared_Studios
Michelle’s interest piqued when she learned that Amar was open to creating an experience that connected the Middle East with other parts of the world, particularly the United States. The American news wasn’t showcasing the stories that Michelle saw for herself through her work, like the thriving art centers and burgeoning entrepreneurial scene. Likewise, many Iranian and Middle Eastern outlets’ coverage of the United States was offering a distorted picture of hundreds of millions of Americans. So Michelle suggested they put this yet-untitled project in Iran and in the United States.
The project started using shipping containers set up in public places. Individuals could walk into the container and be connected to another one halfway around the world via advanced videoconferencing tech. The first Portal in 2014 connected Tehran and NYC. Armed with a single prompted question: “What would make today a good day for you?” participants started talking.
Michelle’s initial hope that individuals would be interested in spending at least 20 minutes in the Portal was blown away, with many individuals having to be gently asked to wrap up their discussion after hours. Five years later, there are now 40 Portal sites around the world, with more on the way.
”I think that's why some people say that the Portal feels like therapy, because it is only 20 minutes, but somebody is talking to you the whole time. It's that human connection that many of us don't get on a day to day basis.Michelle MoghtaderCo-Founder and Director of Global Development of Shared_Studios
On the surface, teleconferencing, Skype and social media appear to do the same thing as the Portal. But in talking to participants, the Shared_Studios team kept hearing the same thing: there was something different about these shipping containers that elicited an emotional response no other technology could.
”People want to globalize their events, from TED or Davos to something niche like a librarian conference. They want to connect with people across the globe and really broaden their audiences.Michelle MoghtaderCo-Founder and Director of Global Development of Shared_Studios
Technologically, what makes Portals different from something like FaceTime is that you’re not restricted to a “floating head” perspective of the other person. Visitors to a Portal can move around the room completely unencumbered. Skype, FaceTime, VR chatting and other web-based video chat services clearly don’t have this luxury.
Another key difference between Portals and video conferencing is the absence of a reverse camera function. That floating in-picture version of your own face or body provides a whole lot of room for distraction. By removing that feature, Portals keeps you in the moment to simulate a real conversation as closely as possible.
“I remember, we had a group of sixth graders from inside of the Portal Gallery,” Michelle said. “And the teachers came out and they said, ‘Wow, I have never seen my students be still for 20 minutes before.’ And it’s not just a kid thing, even for adults, too, we’re constantly bombarded with lots of different things we should be doing. Because they have another person there, it’d be really rude to do other things. This technology should be forgotten and feel immersive [like face-to-face conversation],” said Michelle.
But people don’t come to Portals for the technology, they come for the human connection. And that’s evident from the fact that every Portal is assigned a person who acts as a community organizer, translator and facilitator. For example, if someone wanted to speak with journalists in Mexico City, the curator finds the people to come to participate. The curator also helps facilitate the conversation, making them the glue that helps hold everything together.
Because of these differences, Portals have become activated as community hubs wherever they are stationed. Not only are individuals meeting people from halfway around the world, but they are also discovering people with similar interests in their own backyard.
“One thing that we’ve seen with the Portal is that people often say, ‘I’ve met so many people within my own community that I didn’t know before,’” said Michelle. “We’re bringing people together around the world, but we’re also bringing together people within the same city.”
Shared_Studios is now setting its sights on other ways to build local and global communities as it continues to advance its technology. With the Portal_Inflatable, Portal_Bus and Portal_Screen, Shared_Studios offers the opportunity to temporarily connect humans in a specific location to invite the world to sit in a class or event.
“People want to globalize their events, from TED or Davos to something niche like a librarian conference. They want to connect with people across the globe and really broaden their audiences,” Michelle said.
Perhaps what makes Portals resonate with so many is that it asks people to take a leap of faith, to be vulnerable. When someone walks out of one of these magical shipping containers, they’ll remember how they felt in that space and might be more inclined to seek out that shared experience and vulnerability again. Stepping out from behind an app or a normal screen and spending quality time with a stranger face-to-face helps bring unique perspectives and points of view.
Asking people to step out of their comfort zone is one way to move, inspire and change people for good, bringing more humanity to technologies that were supposed to connect us in the first place. These Portals bring new depth to experiences by asking us to empathize and share with people we never thought we would have a chance to meet.
Header image ©Amar C. Bakshi and Elizabeth Bick for Shared_Studio, second image ©Shared_Studios, third image ©Amar C. Bakshi for Shared_Studios.