President Daniels and trustees stand in front of a screen

Image caption: JHU President Ron Daniels (second from left) leads members of the Johns Hopkins board of trustees in a discussion of access to higher education with a family in Erbil, Iraq

Credit: Larry Canner / Homewood Photography

Building a 'global public square'

Agora Institute brings immersive audiovisual Portals to Homewood to connect people at Hopkins with others around the world

The proposition next to the radiant, gold-painted shipping container is simple and inviting. "Portals" the sign reads. "Step inside and engage people around the world, live, as if in the same room."

From a sun-drenched quad on Johns Hopkins University's Homewood campus, Portal visitors are transported—with the help of a floor-to-ceiling video screen and immersive audiovisual technology—to a location outside Erbil, Iraq, where four men sit inside another Portal.

Video credit: Len Turner

It is, as the sign suggested, as if you are in the same room, free to talk about the weather, or the time difference between the two locations, or the challenges of gaining access to higher education in a conflict zone.

Four years after the Portals idea first began as a public art experiment by Amar Bakshi, a 2012 graduate of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, the concept has evolved into a global network of more than 30 locations that facilitate conversations across miles and divides.

The Hopkins Portal, delivered Monday, is temporarily situated on Decker Quad, in front of Garland Hall. It was brought to campus by the Johns Hopkins Stavros Niarchos Foundation Agora Institute, which hopes to foster the kind of civic discourse that is a cornerstone of thriving democracies around the world and sees the Portals as precisely the kind of next-generation technology that makes that sort of dialogue possible.

"The Portals are really all about ... taking technology and revitalizing public space to build diverse, interconnected communities through a common project."
Amar Bakshi
Co-founder, Shared Studios

"When you think about it, we often use technology to distance ourselves, and technology can actually drive us deeper into our tribes," says Bakshi, co-founder of Shared Studios, which runs the Portals project.

On Thursday, a steady stream of curious visitors ducked into the Portal space. The connections were pre-arranged—with Gaza City to discuss an upcoming design challenge to devise new solutions for emergency response care; with Erbil to discuss how educational institutions around the world can provide opportunities for refugee communities; with Milwaukee to discuss the ongoing research of Johns Hopkins sociologist and Bloomberg Distinguished Professor Vesla Weaver, who is using Portals to inspire peer-to-peer dialogues about police-community relations in urban neighborhoods across the country. But the conversations were casual and largely impromptu.

Outside, in a comment book, visitors wrote messages in gold ink about their Portal experience.

"Thank you for making the world a smaller, more compassionate place for all of us," read one.

"I can see walls of differences breaking down," read another.

This notion of bringing people from around the world together to engage in conversations, to solve problems, and to transcend differences is central to the mission of the SNF Agora Institute, which launched last year with a $150 million gift from the Stavros Niarchos Foundation.

"When I heard about this new platform, I thought about how well it fit in with [the institute's] mission to find new ways to encourage dialogue, connection, and the exchange of ideas," says Elizabeth Smyth, who has worked as an adviser to the SNF Agora Institute during its inaugural year as it searches for a permanent director.

Gold shipping container in front of brick academic building

Image caption: A Portal equipped with audiovisual technology that makes immersive, real-time, cross-continental conversations possible was installed on Decker Quad at JHU's Homewood campus on Monday.

Image credit: Will Kirk / Johns Hopkins University

The signature Portal model is a golden shipping container fitted inside with patented and patent-pending hardware and software—cameras, mics, and screens to connect users to live conversations, like a more intimate version of Skype. Over time, Shared Studios has also found ways to allow more flexible setups—in classrooms, school buses, and even inflatable stations.

As the Portals technology has advanced, Bakshi says, so has the vision.

"We're trying to think more broadly about how to take advantage of human diversity to enrich people's lives," he says, pointing to the larger goal of "building a new sort of public infrastructure," a kind of "global public square."

That idea, of course, is also at the heart of the SNF Agora Institute, which borrows its name—agora—from the Greek word for a public assembly space. The institute will host a panel discussion about the Portals technology featuring Weaver and Bakshi on June 20 as part of the Summer Nostos Festival in Athens, Greece. The festival will be streamed live online.