The Grass Is Bluer

Students build portals to bring rival campuses together.

The eight miles to UNC-Chapel Hill just got shorter. In a corner of the Bryan Center’s upper level is a four-by-four-by-eight feet white box fitted with Bose speakers, a webcam, and a 60-inch LED TV screen, offering students a view into UNC’s student union building. An identical box gives UNC students a reciprocated glance into the BC.

The video connection between the universities was created by Zac Elder ’15 and Chris Batchelder, a sophomore at UNC. The project’s inspiration stems from a video game called Portal, in which players communicate and move by jumping through oval-shaped “portals.”

As friends often too busy to visit the opposite campus, the students sought an easier way to catch up. They applied for a Kenan-Biddle Partnership Grant, a program through Duke Student Affairs that awards $5,000 grants to student-led initiatives to enhance intellectual life at both Duke and UNC. Though initially rejected (because it was “too unique,” says Elder), Batchelder pitched the idea to UNC Chancellor Holden Thorp. Thorp liked it and contacted President Richard H. Brodhead, catalyzing the project.

“Maybe there are a hundred kids [at UNC] who want to hear Condoleezza Rice speak [at Duke], and they can see it through the portal.”

Batchelder and Elder received $5,000 to assemble the portals, which debuted in early February. The funding was split between the two universities.

The portals have received mixed reactions, Elder admits. “Most people who talk to me say ‘Oh, great job, the portal’s really cool.’ But a lot of people want to know why.” While Elder acknowledges that the original idea for the portal was conversation, he sees other, practical uses for his creation. “We’ve talked about doing live streaming of events,” he says. “Maybe there are a hundred kids [at UNC] who want to hear Condoleezza Rice speak [at Duke], and they can see it through the portal.”

Inevitably, the portal also has become an outlet for trash-talk. A cartoon in The Daily Tar Heel showed a UNC student gazing into the portal at Darth Vader, clad in Duke blue, saying, “Come to the Dark Side.” And before the Duke-UNC basketball game in February, UNC students were treated to a blown-up photograph of Austin Rivers’ game-winning shot from 2012, propped on an easel.

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