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This high-tech shipping container can beam you across the world

Part video chat, part sci-fi fantasy, the Portals art project uses tech and shipping containers to connect strangers across the world, selfies and all.

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The gold-painted Portal shipping container, set up in Adelaide, South Australia. 

Claire Reilly/CNET

I just walked into a shipping container and took a selfie with three strangers in Gaza, all without leaving Australia.

It was a thoroughly surreal experience. But it was also an awesome example of how tech has the power to connect people across geographical, political and language barriers.

The experience was all thanks to Portal -- a hybrid tech-design-art experiment that consists of gold-painted shipping containers plonked in cities around the world, all connected by video chat software.

Every shipping container is set up with cameras, speakers and a projector beaming a live video feed onto the interior wall. We chatted via Zoom teleconferencing (Zoom is one of Portal's corporate partners).

The whole thing is kind of like a room-sized video call, but instead of dialing your family from your laptop, you're speaking with a stranger on the other side of the world. Or as someone in our shipping container described it, "It's kind of like a safe version of Chat Roulette."

Created by SharedStudios, the Portal project was the brainchild of Amar Bakshi and Michelle Moghtader, two former journalists who wanted to re-create the kinds of conversations they had with locals when they were reporting as journos around the world.

When I spoke to Moghtader outside the Portal in Adelaide, South Australia, she said the magic is actually created by fairly regular consumer tech, but it's made as invisible as possible.  The idea is to make people feel like they're in a real portal, straight from a sci-fi movie, without seeing the gear that makes it happen.

The first Portals were set up in New York and Tehran in 2014, and there are now 23 across the world, in the Middle East, Africa, Asia, the Americas and Australia.

The curator of Adelaide's Portal, Max Mason, said he wants to connect people globally, but without relying on formal diplomatic channels or the words of politicians.

"It's about sharing the story of South Australia, but as told by the man on the street," Mason told me.

I stepped into the Australian Portal while visiting the Hybrid World Adelaide tech conference in South Australia. I was with with a few people I'd met at the conference and, I won't lie, I was expecting a micromanaged experience designed for ad execs and futurists recovering from the last Burning Man festival. Instead, I met Mira, Sael and Asmaa.

They're in Gaza, 13,000 kilometres away.

We talked about the weather in Gaza. Apparently Mira can't handle the heat, but Sael manages it like a pro. We talked about what we all do for work. Asmaa is a developer, and I work as a tech journo. We asked them what the big news was in Gaza. Everyone over there is talking about reunification of Gaza's disparate governments. They told us that, in Gaza, nothing can really be separated from politics.

They asked us about Australia. What brought us to this Portal? What is it like in Adelaide? What kinds of festivals do we celebrate here?

I couldn't believe I'd made a connection with three total strangers, all through a video chat.

But the best part came when I asked them for a selfie. "Do you guys use Twitter?" I asked. Of course. WeChat, Twitter, all sorts of social media, depending on whether it's with colleagues or friends.

So we took a selfie. Five tech nerds in South Australia, getting a selfie with three equally nerdy people in the Gaza Strip.

The only thing left to do was to work out how we'd find each other online. So we decided on a hashtag, and it was sorted.

By the end of the night, I'd already made a new friend on Twitter. I just can't believe I met her in a shipping container.

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