Facebook wants to put cameras in users' homes

Florence Fletcher
October 10, 2018

But Facebook says it has crafted its Portal gadgets, launched this week, to be as un-creepy as possible.

And Facebook seems to be putting privacy front and center for the Portal series, offering users additional features to protect their data.

It is similar to Smart Display devices from Google and the Echo Show from Amazon, which are also smart speakers with screens to display information or facilitate video calls.

Facebook has just announced that its long-awaited video chat devices Portal and Portal+ are now available to preorder in the U.S., with shipping due to commence in November.

The Portal family includes two variants, the Portal and Portal+. It is controlled using voice commands, although Facebook has eschewed the personal approach of competitors such as Apple's Siri and Amazon's Alexa in favour of a more disembodied presence: users initiate instructions with: "Hey Portal".

During a conversation, the integrated camera can automatically zoom out to include a second person, or be instructed to follow a certain individual as they walk around, even picking out their voice over background noise. The screen can be locked behind a passcode, and you'll need to log into your own Facebook account if you want to change it. That means Portal users can call other Portal users, as well as those with Facebook Messenger installed on their smartphones and tablets. While the built-in camera can track users around the room, Facebook says the camera does not use face recognition, and the AI that handles the tracking lives on the device instead of on Facebook's servers.

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Portal supports Amazon's Alexa voice assistant and will be sold through Amazon's website and in some of its physical stores, representing Facebook's first major partnership with Amazon.

All of the video chatting features you would find on Facebook are there, including group chat with multiple people, stickers, and effects.

Hardware wise, there really isn't a lot to see here apart from the huge 15-.6-inch display on the Portal+. The devices understand voice commands as well, allowing users to say "Hey Portal" before asking it to call one of their contacts. Because there's no way Facebook wouldn't hook any of its products through the main features of the social network. It's worth noting that you can't browse Facebook, the social network, on the Portal.

It only takes a single tap to disable both the microphone and camera. If you're looking for a larger screen, the Portal+ is 15 inches wide, with both devices acting as a digital photo frame, displaying images from your Facebook feed when they are not being used to make calls. What's more, the Smart Camera and Smart Sound's AI technology runs locally on Portal, not on Facebook servers.

Since Echo's release almost four years ago, both Google and Apple have followed Amazon in releasing smart speakers designed for use with their other digital services - some of them, at least. Camargo told Cheddar that the devices' success will be measured internally by how much "engagement" they create with Facebook's video calling and other services. In addition, video calls on Portal are encrypted.

Facebook has just entered the smart speaker business and it's already partnered with three music services: Pandora, Spotify and iHeartRadio.

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