Interview: Amar Bakshi, Portals

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.

It was an assignment for the Washington Post that sent then reporter and video blogger Amar Bakshi on a mission around the world to gather opinions of America that sparked the idea of Portals (more on them later).

“I found some of the most powerful conversations of that year on the road were when the camera was off and the computer was dead,” he says of what would later prove to be an inspirational trip. “I was taking long bus rides from one part of a country to another and out of sheer boredom would strike up conversations with fellow passengers.”

That was the first step toward Portals. However, it wasn’t until Bakshi became the first member of his family to go to Pakistan since his grandmother fled violence amid the Partition of India in 1947, that the idea took another step closer to reality.

Bakshi was reporting from Lahore with his grandmother following his posts and watching his videos. “What she really wanted was just to get a sense of what her home community felt like,” says Bakshi.

He started to think about how his grandmother would feel comfortable using technology to talk with someone in Lahore. That was the second step toward Portals.

Now, Bakshi, founder and creative director of Shared_Studios, has spent the last three years establishing Portals in cities across the globe: from Brooklyn to Berlin; Kigali to Kabul.

So what is a Portal? Well, it’s 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, or in Bakshi’s words: “it’s an internet you can walk through”.

Bakshi’s been tied up with the finer details of the technology used in Portals from the beginning. “Portals began in my parents’ backyard,” he laughs. “I had the fortune of having an uncle that was an optical engineer and we spent months sitting in a shipping container constantly playing with cameras, lens configurations; trying to figure out how to reconcile a range of goals that were often in conflict simultaneously, such as good image quality and high ambient light levels.

“Whilst we turn to our partners for most of the technology, we are developing the camera, lens and software package ourselves,” he adds. So that’s what Portals are, but what do they do and what are they for?

Well that’s quite hard to define partly because it depends on who’s using them, partly because it changes all the time and partly because it’s very often dictated by people having conversations with no agenda and initially no purpose or specified end result.

“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,” offers Bakshi in an example of the surprising, unexpected and often unplanned impacts Portals are having.

Each Portal has a curator, tasked with operating their Portal and facilitating the interactions between Portals. When the curator in Milwaukee, Lewis Lee, connected with the Portal curator in Herat, Afghanistan they had a shared challenge. Both Portals were placed on disputed land. In Milwaukee because of gang rivalries, in Herat because of tribal claims.

“One curator was organising tribal leaders in Afghanistan, the other gang leaders in Milwaukee,” says Bakshi. “They had to get the groups to come together and sort of ordain the Portal as something they were all excited about. What was fascinating was the curators connected with one another to talk about strategies to reconcile groups locally. The end result was basically a neighbourhood watch group and strategy that both curators deployed in their respective country.”

Bakshi is excited about technology developments that could push the Portals project further. “We’re working hard on compelling ways of engaging through a Portal screen,” he says. “We’ve been doing work with things like natural gesture interaction.”

Whilst the technology is important and will allow Portals to grow in different ways, it is people that hold the key for Bakshi. “We consider the network of human beings who we either employ or are connected in common vision as fundamental to our growth.”

And his vision for the future? “I would love Portals to basically be a new addendum to public squares around the world,” says Bakshi. And who wouldn’t want to share that vision? In a world that can look more insular and protectionist by the day, Portals – tearing down barriers, reducing distances and allowing shared experiences - represents the exact opposite.

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