By Andrew Gionfriddo
It sounds like science fiction, but for the past several weeks, visitors to Monroe Park have been able to step inside a large gold-colored shipping container and have a conversation with people in Mexico, Sweden and other countries around the world.
The futuristic technology is a portal featuring a large-screen monitor and high-speed internet. It connects to dozens of similar portals across the globe.
The device, built by a New York-based company called Shared Studios, was installed at the suggestion of Richmond businessman Andy Stefanovich, a thought leader who helped organize the first TEDxRVA in 2013.
Stefanovich brought his idea to Alice Massie, president of the Monroe Park Conservancy, which manages the park. Massie said it did not take much convincing for her to agree to install the portal.
“It’s a little bit of an element of surprise,” she said. “Why a gold box in the park?”
Shared Studios has been installing portals since December 2014. The first was between New York and Tehran, Iran.
“Everyday New Yorkers and everyday Iranians could walk and meet someone new and have a conversation with someone they otherwise wouldn’t have the context or opportunity to engage with,” said Jake Levin, chief operating officer of Shared Studios. “We expected people to stay in for five minutes, and they ended up staying for 45 minutes or longer and having really powerful conversations, so it kind of grew from there.”
Richmond’s portal, Shared Studios’ 41st, was installed in mid-January in Monroe Park. The news spread by word of mouth, Massie said. Virginia Commonwealth University, which surrounds the park, provided a strong server to help deliver the clearest and most responsive experience possible.
“What I was surprised about was how much people were willing to do for it,” Massie said.
The portal is privately funded for a year. Local organizers are reaching out to potential sponsors to keep it in the city after January 2020. It will remain in Monroe Park until May 1 and then head to another area of the city.
“One of the ideas was moving it to a neighborhood that doesn’t have a lot of experiences during the summer,” Massie said. “You have kids in summer school and in camps. What if they got the chance to interact?”
Massie hopes the project will help promote the city across the nation and around the world. “We want people to know Richmond beyond Virginia and the East Coast,” she said.
The portal is an opportunity for Richmond residents to share their thoughts with people elsewhere.
“It’s not only importing things from the world to inspire us, but also what are we going to export?” said Karen Manning, who serves as a portal ambassador, communicating with other portals, organizing events and helping people use the device.
From sharing urban garden tips with people in Los Angeles to jazz musicians jamming with Appalachian musicians, the portal transports locals for a moment in time. By walking into a container and talking to a stranger, they come back from the exchange with more cultural knowledge.
“It’s all about understanding how similar people can be,” said Taylor Logue, another Richmond portal ambassador.
“You can talk with someone you have nothing in common with culturally and still very quickly get to a meaningful conversation,” Logue said.
Those conversations can break down barriers, said Sanaz Habibi, the curator for the portal in Stockholm, Sweden.
“Even with different socio-political atmospheres, we’re still struggling with the same issues,” Habibi said.
Shared Studios’ next step is to make the portals portable. Manning said the company hopes to develop a way to bring the devices — perhaps on trucks or as inflatable portals — to remote areas.