San Francisco Chronicle: Global connections in SF’s Crissy Field

Tracy Brandi looked at an 8-foot-tall projector screen in San Francisco’s Crissy Field on Thursday morning. Half a world away, three students at Catholic University in Nairobi, Kenya, looked back.

The screen, which sits inside a gold-painted shipping container, connects people around the world through video chats. For three years, a New York company has set up the screens they call “portals” to connect people who would otherwise never meet — and now there’s one in San Francisco.

“My name is Tracy and I live in San Francisco. I’ve lived here for about 50 years,” Brandi told the students in Nairobi. “So what do you do? What are your professions?”

“We’re studying law,” said Laura Eileen, one of the students.

“Wonderful,” she said. “My husband is a lawyer.”

The global conversations may not always be profound. But Brandi and others say the portals, which are free, offer a rare opportunity to step into another culture.

The body-size screen in Crissy Field, not far from the Golden Gate Bridge, is part of a network of 30 portals stationed in 11 countries, including such hard-to-reach nations as Iraq, Rwanda and Afghanistan. All that’s required for the other country is to have high-speed Internet and a willing host, such as a university.

Each portal has a projector and speakers that allow people to see and speak with counterparts in a similar portal — in a shipping container, a tent or a regular building.

San Francisco’s portal opened Thursday and will connect visitors to a variety of countries Thursdays through Sundays until it closes Sept. 24.

Shared_Studios, the company that runs the program, created the first portal in 2014 to link participants in New York City and Tehran.

Founders Michelle Moghtader and Amar Bakshi are former journalists. Bakshi called Moghtader one day and said he wanted to find a way to connect people across the world in a way that felt like they were in the same room. What began as a cool idea soon became a company — and a worldwide project. Now the company is staffed by artists, educators and ex-journalists. Moghtader committed full-time to setting up portals with the Skype-like technology.

“This is technically something you can do in your home,” Moghtader said. “But when you do, it’s within your own cocoon and network. This allows people to branch out and collapse space.”

In New York, the first group of portal users spoke with the people in Tehran for less than 10 minutes. But as the project went on, people stayed talking for almost an hour at a time. Soon, reservations filled up.

Kate Bickert, a senior director with the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy, worked with Moghtader recently to bring a portal to San Francisco after her own experience.

While visiting the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C., in January, Bickert and her teenage daughter slipped into a portal that had been set up inside. Across the globe in an Iraqi refugee camp in Erbil, three young men who had escaped from Islamic State-held Mosul entered one, too. Bickert, her daughter and the Iraqis — who otherwise would never meet — talked about their lives for 45 minutes as if they were in the same room, not 7,000 miles and worlds apart.

“One of the most surprising things was how real the interactions felt with the folks on the other side,” Bickert said. “I went into it thinking it was like a Skype or FaceTime call, but because of the scale, you are talking with people who are life-size. It’s real life.”

Every portal, even in the refugee camp, is staffed by a “curator” who facilitates translations and answers questions. They recommend that participants register online to guarantee a spot. Reservations for the San Francisco portal can be made at sharedstudios.com/sf.

The company has placed portals in more than 10 U.S. cities, including Detroit, Los Angeles, Chicago and Baltimore. Some portals are permanent, but others, like San Francisco’s, travel to different cities throughout the year.

So far, about 40,000 people around the world have used the portals, Moghtader said. In each session, she said she sees people making connections and learning about other cultures.

Making the portal discussions work from country to country is a huge, logistical project, Moghtader said, referring to the time differences and set-up arrangements.

But the work is worth it for the small, human connections, she said.

Moghtader remembers one conversation between a man in Connecticut and another in Iran. After making small talk for a while, the Iranian man turned to a more personal topic. He told the American stranger that there was a girl he liked, but he wasn’t sure how to tell her. Could he offer any advice?

Moghtader doesn’t know what the Connecticut man advised — but she said that wasn’t really the point.

“With a complete stranger, you can take your most intimate concerns and talk about it a bit more freely,” she said. “I think being in a gold container allows you to step outside of your world and put your worries behind you and feel what someone else is going through.”