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"Portals" put life-size telepresence experience in shipping containers scattered around 16 global cities.

October 25, 2016 | Telepresence Options

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Story and images by 512tech

The installation allows visitors to communicate with people in far-flung cities through November.

My two new college-aged friends -- at least I think we're friends, we just met -- love to hang out with their friends, shop and hit the beach when it's not too crowded. One of them loves horror movies, the other is really into action films. They've both gearing up for exams coming up in their studies of English and French literature.

The only thing unusual about these students, really, is that they live in Gaza. I met them inside a golden shipping container parked on the St. Edward's University campus in Austin and our 20-minute introductory chat was via videoconference.

While Skype, Facebook Messenger, Apple's FaceTime, Snapchat and many other apps allow this kind of thing via any online mobile device, this experience was a little different.

For one thing, the gold-painted shipping container has been dubbed a "Portal" by Shared Studios, the art and technology team behind it that began out of New York. The shipping containers are in about 16 cities around the world and provide a life-sized videoconferencing experience. The people you communicate with are projected onto a large screen to approximate as closely as possible sharing the same space in real time. It takes a few moments and depending on the internet connection on both sides, audio or video can get a little glitchy, but the effect becomes compelling; you're chatting with people, asking questions, laughing and responding to the visual cues of someone else's body language as if they're on the other side of the same room.

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This was certainly the case on a Tuesday morning when I met two sets of students living in Gaza that included Mona Safadi (the horror film fan) and Amira Alami (who admires American action movies).

Amira was taken aback and found humor in the idea that Americans might perceive Gaza to be a violent, scary place. "We live our lives, we go to college, we study, we go shopping sometimes," she said. "You hear that we live in a war all the time?"

The two are familiar with Beyoncé and Taylor Swift, but as far as music, they're bigger fans of Amr Diab, a popular pop singer from Egypt.

They've traveled to Turkey, Tunisia and Morocco, but they're intrigued by Texas based on just a few minutes of video chatting. "We would like to go to Austin!" Mona said, upon hearing about our town's music scene and festivals.

The Shared Studio project began as a single art installation linking New York with Tehran in late 2014. It has since expanded to include American universities and far-flung places including El Progreso, Honduras; Kabul, Afghanistan; Mexico City; and Kigali, Rwanda, facilitating tens of thousands of video chats.

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