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This Mixed Reality Project Puts You In The Role Of Customs Agent

“With virtual reality and augmented reality, I feel like it presents a unique opportunity … to build those new systems from scratch because we're creating a new world through this technology."

AT THE ABU DHABI AIRPORT, TERMINAL 3 is the location of the U.S. Customs and Border Control Preclearance Facility. It's the place where you can take care of international travel requirements before finishing the journey as if flying domestically in the States.

In mixed reality — the merging between virtual and real worlds — Terminal 3 is wherever you are wearing HoloLens smart glasses.

For me, that's a stark conference room on a tech-centric corporate campus near Los Angeles International Airport. I put on the smart glasses, then a hologram appears across from me. Her name is Ani and she's heading through customs en route to the U.S. from Malaysia, where she has been working in her capacity as a human rights activist.

There's no doubt that the image of Ani in front of me isn't real.

She's an Apple IIe green representation of a person whose grid-like form waxes and wanes from my field of vision with the movements of my head. My job as a customs agent in the virtual Terminal 3 is to select questions that I will ask Ani before deciding whether or not she can enter the U.S. I can interrogate her as if I'm looking for suspicious activity, or I can interview her as if she's the subject of a magazine article.

[quote position="full" is_quote="true"]It's an interesting way to get to know a person ... You have this responsibility to figure them out.[/quote]

I choose the latter method and asked about her job, which leads to questions about her family and previous career.

Ani is a fascinating person, the daughter of a Malaysian diplomat. Yet, she rebelled by pursuing her love of music. She was successful too — she low-key tells me that she has a Grammy certification — but advocating for issues like women's rights through a progressive Muslim group ended up being her calling. Most of her family isn't supportive of her work. As Ani goes deeper into explaining the rifts that her family’s lack of support caused, she loses the retro computer hue and takes on more lifelike shades, although she still looks very much like a hologram.

When the line of questioning is complete, I feel like there's more I want to know about her. But, we're out of time, so I clear her for travel and this mixed reality experience is over.

Image courtesy of Asad J. Malik.

Mixed realities

ASAD J. MALIK, THE 22-YEAR-OLD MIXED REALITY artist and Bennington College student behind Terminal 3, is familiar with the customs interviews.

He's from Pakistan and came to the U.S. for school. In Abu Dhabi, he was questioned at Terminal 3. During his visit to Terminal 3, an agent even raised his voice at Malik in front of the others in the room. In the end, though, Malik made it through the questioning and travelled on to his destination.

"It's a constant part of my identity and I find it so interesting," he says by phone from New York, where Terminal 3 made its premiere at Tribeca Film Festival. "It's an interesting way to get to know a person, through this institutionalized lens when you're sitting down with them with a really weird power dynamic and you have this responsibility to figure them out. I thought it would be a really interesting way to tell a story."

Image courtesy of Asad J. Malik.

Empathetic experiences

WITHIN THE VIRTUAL REALITY SPHERE, THERE'S A TREND to drop viewers into intense situations, like war or arduous border crossings, to trigger emotional responses and build empathy. In his use of mixed reality, Malik challenges the notion that you can spend a few minutes virtually inhabiting someone's life and come out of it with new understandings.

"It comes off with a weird sense of moral superiority," says Malik of what's known as the virtual reality "empathy machine."

In Terminal 3, there are several different people that you might have to question. They aren't actors and the stories that they relay are from their real lives. (Ani is actually the founder of Muslims for Progressive Values and the Grammy certifications came from her songwriting work with blues artist Keb' Mo'.)

[quote position="full" is_quote="true"]We live in a world that's based on all existing power structures that there's no escape from.[/quote]

Malik and his team found the participants through friends.

"We just trusted that everyone had interesting stories and we could get them to feel comfortable enough so they would share them with us," he says. They brought the subjects in for four-hour sessions where they were interviewed and scanned. There was a bit of role-playing, with interviewers taking on "good cop" and "bad cop" roles to help elicit genuine responses for some of the standard questions. Then there were extensive interviews about their work, families, and interests.

At Tribeca, those who tried Terminal 3 were in for a surprise.

Following the questioning, they were brought into another room where they would see the real people behind the holograms. Malik says that this moment moved some people to tears, Yet he later counters that tear-jerking isn't the standard by which this kind of immersive art should be judged.

Malik makes an important, often overlooked, point.

Image courtesy of Asad J. Malik.

Virtual privilege

NO MATTER HOW REAL A SITUATION MAY FEEL inside the virtual reality headset, it's still not your reality. Viewers are coming into these experiences from a position of privilege. They may feel as if they had stepped inside a war zone, but they won't bleed as a result of it. They'll take off the headset and return to their normal lives.

Terminal 3, though, provides a different sort of experience. It's mixed reality that is closer to augmented reality than VR. You aren't entering a new world. The content merges with tangible surroundings. You see a hologram of a person sitting in a chair that actually exists, surrounded by walls that are absolutely real. "The person comes to your space and you don't go to theirs, or you don't pretend to go to theirs," Malik explains.

He says this can change how you recall the interaction. "Since the person being represented is in your space, it's recorded as a real experience," Malik explains. "Even when you take off the HoloLens, your space is going to remind you of them because you had that experience there."

Moreover, Malik puts the user in the position of power, where you have to decide how you want to interact with and react to the hologram in front of you. The resulting situation is one where you can learn as much about yourself as you can about the person you're interviewing. It's a project that brings forth a lot of questions, including how comfortable are you with a stranger in your space? Malik sees that question as pertinent to today's political discourse.

Ideally, he'll take the project outside of the festival circuit too. Malik is interested in making a version of Terminal 3 to work with smart phones.

"We live in a world that's based on all existing power structures that there's no escape from," says Malik, "but with virtual reality and augmented reality, I feel like it presents a unique opportunity to be able to change the systems, to build those new systems from scratch because we're creating a new world through this technology."

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