InAVate: Interview: How are ‘Portals’ making the world a smaller place?

Amar Bakshi explored the relationship between AV technology and public spaces when he spoke at the InfoComm 2018 TIDE conference. Anna Mitchell catches up with him about his recent project: Portals.

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A Portal is essentially a gold space – more often than not a shipping container but they come in numerous forms: inflatable rooms, repurposed huts, a single screen, even a bus. Walk inside and generally you’ll find an NEC short-throw projector, Biamp Devio microphones and Community loudspeakers. Behind the scenes Zoom videoconferencing is at work. All manufacturers are working as sponsors of the project.

You’ll also find someone else from a completely different place because that technology will be connecting you with someone in another Portal, perhaps the other side of the world. It will allow you to talk, learn and share experiences naturally. 

Thy are the brainchild of Shared_Studios founder and creative director Amar Bakshi who spoke to InAVate about his inspirations and the impact Portals are having all over the world.

AM: Is there anything in your experience as a reporter and editor that you've brought to Portals?

AB: Absolutely. I think Portals as a project was very much founded form my experience as a journalist. 

One, of my first jobs out of college was to be video blogger, a video reporter for the Washington Post. I pitched a job that would see me travel around the world to a dozen countries reporting on how people from all walks of life view America. This was in 2007 and 2008. 

What I found was, some of the most powerful conversations of that year on the road were when the camera was off and the computer was dead and I was on long bus rides from one part of a country to another. I had time and nothing to do and so out of sheer boredom I would strike up a conversation with the person sitting next to me. Because those conversations were for no particular purpose, whatever I was going to say was not going to get home to my mother, because they were not for any reason other than a basic curiosity, they ended up being some of the most powerful conversations of my life.
 

When I returned to the US I found that, as time went by, I never talked to strangers. It was always to get a date or job, never just to satisfy a basic human curiosity. And so that was the first element. 

I started thinking about how do you recreate that experience? How do you encourage people at a time when they'd much rather read their iPhones to actually engage the person sitting next to them? How do you make it exciting? 

The second impetus was when I was the first member of my family to go to Pakistan since 1947 when my grandmother fled Lahore during the Partition of India and amidst great violence. When I was in Lahore, my grandmother was reading my posts and watching the videos. I was writing about politics and art and doing vignettes about people's lives but what she really wanted was just to get a sense of what her home community felt like. Talking to someone of the older generation, or the younger, wondering what these people felt like. 

I told her not to worry. One day technology would solve this for her and she'd be able to wear holographic glasses and walk around the street and talk to whomever she wants. And when she passed away in 2014, even though the technology was getting better and better there was no context in which she would have done that. I don't think VR glasses would have done it. I don't think she would have used her home computer and chat roulette or something, just to skype a random person in Pakistan. 

I thought, well what would she want? She would want to just be able to go to her local coffee shop, sit down for a coffee and happen to talk to someone halfway around the world in Lahore. It doesn't matter if they're 12 years old or 85, just to catch up. And that was the origin of Portals as an idea and the rest of it became embodied through art and technology as the practical necessities of building this network.

AM: You are using technology to connect people, but you also just mentioned that perhaps someone might be more interested in sitting on their iPhone than making a connection? Do you think technology in our lives today can sometimes be a barrier to connections as well as something that can help us make connections?

AB: Of course. I think for sometime now we have treated technology like an organic inevitable force with its own logic. We've spoken about tools and platforms as if underlying them there's not some goal, or goal set. And I think that that's a false framing or our contemporary reality. 

Where how we deploy technology, is not an inevitable consequence of technology itself. It's about how it's socialised, how it's positioned, how the companies that bring it into the world push it forward and what they prioritise. It's about how we as people chose how we use our technology, and chose what we want to value. 
 

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So I think that we, right now, as a society, tend to use technology, and specifically consumer focused technology, in ways that tend to separate us from people unlike ourselves. I think we tend to use these things to stitch ourselves deeper into our existing networks and we tend to not use it to engage outside of that. I think there are also very practical reasons for this. I think it's very hard to generate the level of trust and quality and shared purpose. 

If you have a public park, and people come there to engage in different activities, that park actually serves the function of having young kids playing Frisbee sitting next to old people who are reading a book and maybe they'll bump into each other. 

When we're involved in tech at home the serendipity is not built into the structure of the space. And so what I think is important with portals is there's a geographic element to it. It's physically located. There's a community based aspect to it, it's grounded in a community and staffed by a human being. It's a technology that designed for and built for communities as opposed to individuals and I think that that distinction is quite important. It's a way for us to think about that technology slightly differently. How do we deploy it as part of a public purpose? And what does that look like, especially today?


AM: When you were setting up portals, how much of an interest did you take in the specific technologies you used? 

AB: I was very much looking at technology and actively selecting it myself. 

Portals began in my parent’s backyard and I had the great fortune of having an uncle who was an optical engineer. And so he spent months with me, sitting in a shipping container in the back yard against the protestations of some of my neighbours who wanted to get rid of it! We were constantly playing with camera, lens configurations, different machine vision cameras, repurposing them, thinking about the relationship between the lens and the space, the relationship between light levels and cost and thinking about an optimal arrangement that achieved a number of different goals, goals that were often in conflict simultaneously. Goals like image quality and ambient light levels and resolution. 

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So there's a lot of different pieces to juggle and a lot of work that needed to be done on the lens camera configuration and now there's some software on top of that that we've developed basically to create the feeling or spatial continuity, using a single camera. 


And we're now experimenting with multiple cameras. Our goal, technologically is to create an internet you can walk through by which we mean, a surface that feels spatially continuous. One that when you speak to someone in front of you, it looks like you're standing right there and making eye contact and if feels like you can run through the screen. 

How do you create that environment? So the container is a really great way of limited form in which to seek to perfect that goal. 

In terms of technology we use, obviously we don't build the vast majority of things that we use. What we focus on is the camera, the lens, the software package basically. And we have great partners in tech who have enabled us to deal with some of the other challenges. 

So Biamp is our microphones sponsor and we work with them and their Devio units across our network. Community speakers is a fantastic speaker company, their speakers are across our network. Zoom right now is our partner for data transmission on the back end and they work incredibly well, whether we're in Gaza or Manhattan, and that was actually not that easy to find. 

And then NEC is providing us with ultra short throw very, very bright projectors so we can have the portal doors open in the middle of the day and have a conference with a large audience being able to see inside. 

AM: Have you ever had any trouble getting those specific technologies into any of the countries you work in - I am thinking of problems due to trade embargoes or import duties?

AB: I don't run the exact distribution of these items so I don't have a good answer to that. If there are problems with embargoes of any kind we buy things in country and find a suitable replacement. Off the top of my head, I don't think we’ve encountered that, but I don't want to say categorically. The set up is flexible enough to get around with other technologies if required. 


AM: Can you offer any examples of specific connections that have been made through portals and their subsequent impact?

AB: We have a portal in inner city Milwaukee, in the Amani community, the 53206 ZIP Code, which has the highest black male incarceration rate in America. 

And we have a portal in Herat, Afghanistan. It was moved between a university and an academy for young girls learning how to code. And we were setting these up, both in Herat and in Milwaukee. Our Portal curator, meaning the person staffing the Portal, had to deal with rival groups, with competing claims to turf where the portal was located. Our curators basically had to organise tribal leaders in Afghanistan and gang leaders in Milwaukee to come together and sort of ordain the portal as something they were all excited about. 

What was fascinating was these curators connected with one another to talk about the strategies they had to reconcile these rival groups locally and it ended up leading to basically a neighbourhood watch group and strategy that both parties are deploying in their respective countries. 
 

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So Lewis Lee [pictured right] was our Portal curator in Milwaukee. He spoke at TIDE about some of the ways in which he had used his Portal to talk about gun violence in his community to engage in ongoing dialogues between police and communities and this was just one small example. 

At this point we've had 150,000 or more conversations between individuals and small groups and 10s of thousands of more events. 

Every day, every site connects to every other site. We've had a group of young disabled kids in Erbil, Iraq in an internally displaced persons camp engage with people all over the world with disabilities. 

One of the things that's quite remarkable is people see a couple of things when they connect globally. One they see the commonalities of their struggles in which they can feel very isolated. And two, they often will see hope and possibility in areas, where if they only looked locally maybe they wouldn't have seen that already. 

We have a massive list of things that have happened in Portals and its ever growing. It’s just a list of bullets under categories like gender, technology and entrepreneurship. 

We have a whole series of hackathons that are being run between The Johns Hopkins Center for Bioengineering Innovation and Design and the American University in Beirut and the University of Palestine in Gaza where teams of kids collaborate to address public heath challenges through new technologies. They form these international collaborations which in turn are leading to companies, with founders in two completely different arenas. 

We've done a lot in K-12 space as well. We can go on and on. 

We also have this Gold Book. So every time people leave the portal they write in the Gold Book and we now have about 10,000 pages of people's responses in about what happened. There's someone writing a dissertation around those narratives. 
 

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Two years ago, two researchers, one at Yale Law School, named Tracey Meares, and one at Johns Hopkins named Vesla Weaver. They initiated a multi-year study through portals and they're actually the ones who, along with the MacArthur Foundation, funded us to place Portals in inner city communities around America. Here, 60-70% of the time, they're just being used as normal Portals connecting around the globe but for some percentage of the time, they’re being used to connect strangers, one-on-one for 10 minutes or longer, around the question: how do you feel about the police? That's it. 

These portals are in Los Angeles and Chicago and Milwaukee and Baltimore and Newark and these conversations - recorded with consent and all the relevant approvals – are transcribed and analysed and paired with survey data that participants filled out. It provides a very rich, narrative view of how people conceive of the police in their community, how they construct stories about their interaction with one another. This is a much richer source of data than just a survey, administered through a phone call or so forth. It’s also less researcher driven than a focus group. 

[The researchers are] publishing a book in a couple of years on this and we think it could augment a really interesting way of collection community narratives and data around sentiment in a more robust manner.

AM: Are there any recent or promised technology developments that you think could also have a positive social impact?

AB: We are working hard on compelling, ways of engaging through a Portal like screen with natural gestural interactions. There's a lot of work that we've been doing in that space that I think is exciting. 

In terms of technology and social change, one of the things that, at least right now, we consider fundamental to our growth, is the network of human beings who either we employ or are somehow connected in this common mission.

Generally a Portal is permanent and each one has one or more curators whose job it is, not just to facilitate the connection, but also to organise, conduct outreach and raise excitement. They make people think about the incredible technology they have at their fingertips so that they use it and then they can go home and then continue to use all the great technologies that [you could see at] Infocomm to make communication easier and easier. 

But we still think there's a real value in having that human being facilitate that interest. It's a bit like a teacher or a librarian, you need those folks, not just to mechanically identify the book that matches a child's interest, you need them to excite the child about what is possible and you need to provide the level of trust that is necessary to engage that very basic curiosity that our society is not always organised around promoting. 

So we think of our curators like that librarian like that teacher, who are saying to kids and adults alike - 'hey you have an idea for a new app, why don't you consider working with someone in Kazakhstan who has a similar goal set’? ‘You want to make a rap album? Why don't you work from Milwaukee to Kigali and do something that will help you make those connections?’
 

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One of the big goals we have – and actually one of the big challenges – is how do you take that human element, that we think is really indispensable, and not just [make it about] raiding a provision of a service. 

That's not just: ‘I like how he made that pasta for me’or ‘I like how she taught me that language’. This is more authentic, a little more divorced from a particular purpose. How do you create a community, continue to grow in that way and is it possible to scale it in the way that tech companies often talk about scale? Or is it some sort of multi-decade gradual process to build a new public infrastructure that can sustain jobs in the space of harnessing technology to build the kind of society we want to see? 

I guess I don't know the answer to that. My inclination right now is, it's a long slow process of organising and connecting communities around the world. But perhaps there are innovations that are coming out that could facilitate this better in artificial intelligence or in machine learning that could help. 

I don’t know but I'm curious and we're talking to a bunch of firms in the space. AI has such an incredible power in machine learning. How do we use that not to make us addicted to our iPhone but to make us keen on connecting more broadly and expanding our horizons with new experiences and new people, in an authentic way that makes us open to hearing them? Speaking and listening authentically. That's the goal. 

AM: You’ve mentioned the importance of trust. Looking at the recent Cambridge Analytica scandal that involved Facebook, I think people have lost faith some platforms they’d used to connect with friends and other people. Is trust and the abuse of people's trust when it comes to how data is used a consideration or a concern for you?

AB: When I mention trust, I mean it in the context of trust in the person you're connecting to. Or trust in the process of connecting you to somewhere halfway around the world. I mean it in the sense that if a journalist from Iran reached out to you and said I want to do something on AV tech between Iran and the US, maybe you'd click accept to the request. It's equally likely if you had no friends in common or if it’s outside your domain, you'd think 'this seems like spam'.

But on the question of data collection, one thing that Portals has long done, is have our default as not to record anything. So the default is you come in and we really have nothing on you. We don't really know what you said, who you said it to. Maybe we have your email you signed up online with but we don't pair that to any conversation you've had. The only exception of course is the criminal justice dialogue which is a very discrete research piece. 
 

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That's where we are now. As the company grows, what is I think really critical to us is we create a space where people feel free to engage authentically. [This is] especially important because we might have someone speaking about being gay in a place where that could land you in jail and for someone in another country where being gay is just absolutely nothing special. We have to be, extraordinarily careful about this. 

The default of not recording, the default of saying ‘this is your private moment, this is your time to use technology to connect outside yourself’ and not selling you ads or anything. That's one reason why our company - that we've now grown from a one-off art project into what is already a sustainable business - is that we really engage institutions. We look at how city halls sponsor libraries, or performing arts spaces. Maybe there's some big local sponsors, maybe the university is helping do it, or a cultural festival or it's crowd funding. 

There are different ways in supporting each site. But it's always free to the public, there's no monetisation of conversations for interactions in the portal. We would love to be basically a new addendum to public squares around the world and we'd love to say to the cities ‘all we're asking for is the salary of a local person to make it their job to help connect your community to the world’. That's what we're telling cities and universities large and small. Listen, this is the vision. 

Sure we could have portals that are at home and we have a version that accomplishes that goal. But that's not really the vision we're pushing right now. We want to revitalise these public spaces with institutions supporting and endowing these portals for the long hall.