The Portals project came about when Shared_Studios was looking for a method of facilitating real-time conversations between people located in different places.
The initial installation connected participants in New York City and Tehran during the nuclear negotiations that were taking place at that time. Shared_Studios’ founders weren’t sure what to expect from this experiment, although they anticipated that most people would spend about 10 minutes in the Portal space. Instead, they discovered people in both cities were spending an average of 45 minutes in the Portal, having incredibly moving experiences and conversations with individuals they would never otherwise meet.
As word spread, people began requesting Portals to be opened in additional locations. After the success of the initial installation, the founders began to reimagine the project with respect to the technology. They decided to focus on improving the audio, microphones, speakers, and camera placement to support more natural conversation. The founders understood the importance of placing the camera at eye level to create the sensation of making eye contact with Portal participants elsewhere in the world. To provide the most natural conversation possible, lip sync was also critical to the experience. All design factors – from lighting to carpeting to the way the images were projected on the wall – went into consideration for each Portal. With such a delicate balance between aesthetics and the ability to replicate the design in multiple environments, choosing the right technology for the new Portals was crucial.
There are now 31 permanent Portal sites installed around the world, with additional sites (both permanent and temporary) scheduled for the future. Portals are installed in a diverse array of spaces, from refugee camps to cultural centres to public parks. They are also present in educational institutions and music venues, as well as in a prison to assist with re-entry services for inmates who are close to completing their sentences.
Overcoming language barriers was another important factor in choosing the appropriate technology for the Portals. Each location is staffed by curators, many of whom are multi-lingual and capable of translating on behalf of participants. For example, if a Portal in Spain is connected to a Portal in Iraq, the curators will speak both Spanish and Arabic or Kurdish. Some events have required remote translation, with a person listening in live at a satellite location and typing translations in real-time.
While most Shared_Studios Portal locations are intended to be permanent or semi-permanent fixtures, the founders also created a portable, inflatable version that could be installed and dismantled anywhere in the world to accommodate opportunities with shorter set-up times or in unique locales. To accommodate these needs, any technology had to be lightweight, durable, and flexible enough to withstand multiple moves, reconfigurations, and heavy use.
Shared_Studios selected Biamp’s Devio as the audio solution, providing the most life-like audio experience, delivering clear audio whether Portal visitors were having a conversation or even collaborating on a musical performance. Devio was installed in the first 12 Portals throughout 2017. These units are located in Portals all over the world, from an internally displaced persons camp in Erbil, Iraq, to permanent installations in Nairobi, Kenya and Milwaukee, Wisconsin (USA).
Portals are typically centred around LCD or LED projectors, with LED lights illuminating participants. They have one or more cameras embedded in the display surface, creating line-of-sight contact, and enabling participants to interact live and full-body, as if in the same room. Each Portal features a single Devio DTM-1 desktop microphone unit inverted and mounted in the ceiling – a slightly unusual placement for these devices. The Devio unit itself is also concealed to keep the technology used as transparent as possible, which helps encourage more natural conversations. The Devio unit is connected to the microphone component located in the ceiling, and an Ethernet patch cable runs through the ceiling to connect to a computer hidden behind the wall. The computer, amplifier, and all other pieces of equipment are out of sight, and two loudspeakers are camouflaged and embedded in the wall so they are as close to the participant’s mouth as logistically possible. While these devices are hidden from view, they remain easily accessible for technicians to make any necessary adjustments.
One of the primary purposes of the Portals project is bridging gaps between people – whether those gaps are geographical, cultural, or any number of other reasons. That’s why audio clarity as well as minimising latency were key factors. Shared_Studios was committed to reducing latency as much as possible to support effective collaboration. Devio’s software allows it to adjust automatically whenever a participant is talking, laughing, or singing, resulting in crisp, clean natural sounding audio no matter the geographical distance between participants.