The State Press: Step into a portal across the world in downtown Tempe

A large, gold shipping container sits on a sidewalk in Tempe, oddly out of place. Upon walking up the ramp and into its dark interior, one finds something completely unexpected: the other side of the world.

Shared Studios’ Portal Project, the brainchild of founder and creative director Amar Bakshi, aims to utilize technology to bring the world together through simple conversation.

The back wall of the Portal is a floor-to-ceiling screen that displays a life-sized live image of a portal somewhere across the globe, from Oakland, California to Herat, Afghanistan. 

Bakshi said the inspiration for the Portal Project came from his travels while writing for the Washington Post in 2006, when he would take long bus rides across foreign countries with no entertainment but had “some of the most moving and meaningful conversations” with the people next to him.

“When I came back to the U.S. for work and school, I noticed that I didn’t have those kinds of conversations anymore,” he said. “Whenever I met anyone new, it was to get a job or get a date. It wasn’t just to lose myself in hearing the story of another person.”

His grandmother also played a role in inspiring the Portal Project, Bakshi said.

In 2007, he was reporting in Pakistan where his grandmother had grown up before she fled to India in 1947. Bakshi said his grandmother loved reading his stories about her homeland but wished she could have a simple conversation with someone in Pakistan to “feel the place again.”

He said Portals can offer that connection his grandmother wished for to more than just those with the money to travel away from their home country — Portals make it available to anyone.

Brandon Ferderer, a Portal curator and graduate student studying communication, said he's had deep and moving connections with the people he’s met in the Portal.

One of the conversations that resonated with him the most is one he had with a college student in Afghanistan.

“I asked him, ‘What do you plan to do with your robotics degree?’ He said that he is committed to working on artificial intelligence that detects suicide bombs,” Ferderer said. “And then we got into a more in-depth conversation about the number of his friends in the Afghan army who had been killed as a result of suicide bombings.”

He said that this course of conversation is reflective of the way things can go in the Portal.

“The conversation often starts with those kinds of everyday connections that we have with people all over the globe," Ferderer said. "But those conversations often move to things that are much more deep and long-lasting.” 

Julie Kent, the director of placemaking for Downtown Tempe Authority, said that beyond helping people make international human connections, the Portal has helped businesses in downtown Tempe.

“I think it’s bringing people here that wouldn’t normally be here,” she said. “People are traveling here to come and see this, so it helps our downtown business, which is a huge goal of our organization.”

Kent said the Portal will be in Tempe from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday through Friday. Although the Portal is currently only scheduled to be in Tempe through March, she said DTA is hoping to find funding to keep it here permanently.

She also said she’s seen firsthand what the Portal can do for people and what types of connections can be made with people thousands of miles away.

“People will walk in kind of hesitant and they come out smiling and laughing,” Kent said. “It’s creating good memories for them … and hopefully they learn something they didn’t know before about another country.”

Bakshi said he thinks the Portals are an effective use of the technology we often take for granted.

“We were doing pen pals in the 80s and now that it’s basically free to engage with people around the world, the meaning of it has been sapped away,” he said. “We are trying to make an argument to people, which is, ‘Wait a second. We have incredible technology at our fingertips. Let us, as communities, claim it and use it in a way that helps advance the goals we have.’”