They take you into a room and you sit at a table. A sign on the wall says “U.S. Customs Facility Secondary Screening,” and alerts you that the room is under 24-hour surveillance. But you’re not being questioned. In this room, you’re in the position of power.
Then, you put on a Hololens mixed-reality headset and meet Ayesha, a hologram that sits on a stool on the other side of the room. The barely visible screen in front of your eyes prompts you to ask her one of two questions. Where were you born? Los Angeles, she says. Who were you visiting in Pakistan? Family and friends, she responds.
The questioning continues. Has she contacted anyone from the Taliban? Is she religious? What is that tattoo on her arm, written in an unfamiliar script? And then, you make the decision: Is she suspicious? Or will you grant her passage to the U.S.?
This is Terminal 3, an AR experience that premiered at Tribeca Film Festival this week. Created by Asad J. Malik, a Pakistani artist born five minutes from where Osama Bin Laden was killed by U.S. forces in 2011, Terminal 3 is based on his own experiences coming to the U.S. for the first time to attend college. Terminal 3 is a real place in the Abu Dhabi International Airport, where visitors from Asia and the Middle East go through U.S. Customs before boarding a plane. Even though he had a visa, Malik was pulled for secondary screening and waited so long that he nearly missed his flight. “The security officer got up and shouted at me in front of the whole room, and he was like, ‘I decide when you go. I don’t care if you have a visa. It’s my decision,'” Malik says.
The experience was an wake-up call. Though he made it to the United States, he realized he would be treated a certain way because of where he was born. In 2015, two FBI special agents visited Malik’s college in Vermont and questioned him after he’d made a trip to Libya. There were no charges, but both experiences inspired Malik to use the interrogation room as a place to question what it means to be Muslim in today’s America.
Ayesha isn’t the only person you can meet in Terminal 3, which Malik created in partnership with immersive media company Ryot–there are six holograms, all real people, whom Malik interviewed and captured using a volumetric camera. Besides Ayesha, whom Malik describes as an “L.A. art girl,” there’s an investment banker, a Trump supporter, and a religious, conservative Muslim. In essence, it’s a documentary project, designed to reveal the multiple facets of Muslim identity.
Why turn these interviews into an AR experience? “What we’re trying to do is bring someone into your space,” Malik says. “You look around and you see this space you believe to be real and in there you meet this person whose story automatically becomes real because it’s associated with your space.”
VR is often touted as an empathy machine–a way of letting people experience what it’s like to be another person. But when you put on a VR headset, you’re in a completely virtual space, so it’s easy to separate what’s real and what isn’t. “It’s so easy to be in a 360 video for five minutes and come out and say, now I know,” he says. AR, on the other hand, forces you to interact within a real space–Terminal 3‘s power comes from forcing you to share your physical space with the holograms. You’re the one asking the questions that determine this person’s future. You’re the one implicated.
It’s not a comfortable experience, and it’s not meant to be. After you decide whether Ayesha is suspicious or not, you take off the headset, walk around the corner, and the real Ayesha is sitting there, wearing the same clothes she’s wearing in the hologram. She’s been listening in the whole time.
The project is at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York until April 29. Malik is also planning to develop a stand-alone app that anyone can download and explore in their living room.