The Gazette: Portal outside Pioneers Museum connects Colorado Springs with the world

For the first time since the gold shipping container appeared outside of the Pioneers Museum, its owners have given a glimpse of its purpose.

On Saturday afternoon, the inside of the container served as a concert venue for members of the band Mo' Mungus - Ed "Archtop Eddy" Parsons, Gerard Mali and Claude Petersen. Their audience was not their regular Colorado Springs crowd, though. Instead, the band played in live time for Norma and Herardo, a pair of friends dancing in an identical space in Mexico City.

The show was the Colorado Springs debut of an international interactive public art installation started by artist Amar Bakshi in 2014 called Portals. Portals uses immersive audio-visual technology to connect people in cities where other portals are located. Unlike video conferencing software, Portals offers full-body experiences, where users feel as though they have just walked into the same room as someone across the world, just as the Mo' Mungus musicians experienced with the visitors in Mexico City during their two-hour show.

"In the Portal, I'm sitting watching guys and gals in another country, and it's like I have one foot in their world and they have one foot in mine," Parsons said.

So far, the project has connected more than 45,000 people around the world. The encounters are most often between strangers, something Bakshi and Max Ferguson, the curator of the Colorado Springs_Portal, see as compelling encounters.

"It's a real opportunity to make connecting with people from across the globe more than a novelty," said Ferguson.

The Colorado Springs_Portal is the first public Portal in Colorado. Imagination Celebration is using Portals as part of its What IF ... Festival to ask, "What if you could walk into the internet?"

From July 1 to Sept. 9, the public can enter the Colorado Springs_Portal to connect with people in Germany, Spain, Myanmar, Iraq, two cities in Afghanistan, Jordan, Palestine, Mexico, Honduras, Rwanda, Kenya, Kazakhstan and nine cities throughout the U.S.

Deborah Thornton, the executive director of Imagination Celebration, discovered Portals at the Conference for World Affairs in April at University of Colorado - Boulder. Portals was available at the conference for students to experience. There, Thornton met a woman from Kigali, Rwanda, who wanted to use the Portal for people to see Kigali through a lens of vibrancy rather than the legacy of Rwandan Genocide.

"I think oftentimes we don't have enough knowledge about a place to truly know what it is like. We paint it all with the same brush," Thornton said. "There's something amazing about walking into the Portal, being able to connect with someone in another part of the world and simply having a conversation between everyday people."

Most curators speak English and can translate when communicating with people in foreign countries.

Throughout the duration of the installation, Thornton wants to highlight Colorado Springs as Olympic City USA.

"If we look at the Olympic ideals, they are respect, friendship and excellence," said Thornton. "With Portals, I'd like to highlight those ideals. We also want to underscore that we have a mountain of talent here in Colorado Springs. We want to have people use it to show to the world some of the stellar talent we have here from all walks of life."

In addition to the public use of the Portals, Thornton plans to connect specific Colorado Springs groups with others around the world. She hopes to connect Olympic athletes, choreographers and members of the tech industry, among others.

For Parsons, the experience reminded him that the power of human interaction will not disappear, even as technology continues to change.

"Within a few years, this technology will be old, but what won't change, no matter how good technology gets, are the human-to-human relationships that Portals allows to happen," Parsons said.