A portal has opened in Monroe Park

It’s a big gold box that connects people around the world. And it’s going to be in Richmond all year.

A VCU police officer and Karen Manning, Richmond portal ambassador,  speak with a person in Oakla...
A VCU police officer and Karen Manning, Richmond portal ambassador, speak with a person in Oakland, California. (Photo by Tom Kojcsich, University Marketing)

So, Richmond has a portal — an audiovisual-equipped enclosure that allows people around the world to connect and talk as though they are in the same room. It’s big and gold and sitting in the middle of Monroe Park.

How does it work? How long will it be here? VCU News spoke with Karen Manning, Richmond portal ambassador, to learn more about the city’s mystery box.

Portals come in all shapes and sizes. Richmond’s is a shipping container.

Portals are one of a suite of projects from Shared Studios, a Brooklyn, New York-based art, design and technology company. There are dozens of portals around the world. Most, like the one in Richmond, are shipping containers. Others can be inflatable cubes or a set of screens placed in a room. Andy Stefanovich, who first brought TEDxRVA to Richmond, is funding the project. 

The portals all function the same, Manning said. They are enclosed spaces outfitted with technology to allow the user to speak with, and see, someone in another portal.

“But what makes it different from Skype is you are connected with people you normally wouldn’t connect with — you don’t get on Skype and say, ‘I’m randomly going to talk to someone in another country,’” Manning said. “So the portal connects you with people you would never otherwise connect with.”

Manning (in purple jacket) and a group of Shared Studios staff and volunteers, stand outside the portal in Monroe Park.
Manning (in purple jacket) and a group of Shared Studios staff and volunteers, stand outside the portal in Monroe Park. (Photo by Tom Kojcsich, University Marketing)

When you enter the portal, you come face to face with someone in another part of the world.

This is where the magic happens, Manning said. The interior of the portal appears basic — a small, semi-climate controlled room covered in gray carpet with a wall-sized black video screen. But that environment gives the user a full-body, face-to-face connection. You walk in and start talking to the person on the screen, Manning said. It’s that simple.

“Some people, when they are a little hesitant, we’ll give them a prompt,” Manning said. “What inspired you today? Or, maybe we’re connected to Berlin. Do you have a question about Berlin? We help them find a comfort level and we go from there.”

Usually most people want to engage, she said.

“One of the VCU Police officers stopped by and we were connected to Mexico City. He went in and I introduced him,” Manning said. “And the curators in Mexico City went out on the street — they are in a very big plaza in Mexico City — and got a police officer and he came in and they translated and [the officers] talked about policing, what it’s like to police on the VCU campus and what it’s like to be a police officer in Mexico. They loved it.” 

The portal will remain in Monroe Park until April 30. (Photo by Allen Jones, University Marketing)
The portal will remain in Monroe Park until April 30. (Photo by Allen Jones, University Marketing)

Starting this week, Richmond’s portal will be open 10-15 hours a week for walk-ins or timed reservations.

People can learn more about the portal schedule at www.sharedstudios.com/richmond. They also can request to connect with other portals and pitch event and program ideas by emailing richmond@sharedstudios.com, Manning said. 

“I had a group of school kids from another country, they wanted to speak with a group of kids here about Shakespeare,” she said. 

Other planned events could include yoga and meditation classes, Manning said. She also sees the portal as a space to facilitate topical discussions. Manning is working to set up a connection between the Richmond portal and portals in Berlin and Afghanistan to discuss monuments and memorials. Another conversation, with participants in Kigali, Rwanda, would focus on the idea of peace and reconciliation. 

“We also want to bring in school groups to do show-and-tell with people in different countries,” Manning said. “And then there’s just the magic of open hours, the meals, the conversations — I can bring my dinner into the portal and have dinner with someone in Mexico. We get a table for six and I bring my dinner, they bring their dinner. And it looks like one long table and you sit there and have a meal and talk about whatever you want to talk about.”

The portal will leave Monroe Park at the end of April. But it will remain in Richmond longer.

The portal will be in the park until April 30, and then moved to three other local sites throughout the year, Manning said. 

“We are asking the community for their ideas,” she said. “We want to make sure the whole community has access to it. We might want to move it south of the river, or up in northern Church Hill. We’re trying to challenge ourselves on where we can place it so a different group of people can access it.”