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Facebook Pushes Into Smart Speakers With New Portal Video Calling Device

October 8, 2018, 1:00 PM UTC

Facebook’s mission has long been to connect users with friends and family. Now, for the first time, it will sell a device to do just that.

On Monday, the company unveiled a mini-computer for making video calls. Called Portal, the device comes with a screen and speaker that is designed for kitchens and living rooms.

It marks a huge departure for the social networking giant and pushes the company into the emerging smart-speaker market, which is already flush with rivals like Amazon, Google, and Apple. Research firm International Data Corporation estimates that the value of the smart speaker market will more than double from $11.8 billion in 2018 to $27.8 billion in 2022.

Although Facebook sells Oculus virtual reality headsets, the Portal video calling device is its first consumer hardware product to be developed entirely within the company as opposed to being initially developed at an independent startup. And while virtual reality headsets have yet to catch on with consumers, research from analyst firms show that people are increasingly buying Internet-connected speakers, particularly in China.

Facebook has two versions of its video calling device, which it will initially only sell in the U.S.. The $199 Portal has a 10-inch screen and weighs 2.7 pounds. Meanwhile, the Portal+ costs $349 and has a larger, rotating 15.6-inch screen, weighs 7.4 pounds, and includes an embedded mini-subwoofer that adds extra bass for better sound quality.

For comparison, Amazon’s Echo Show video calling device, which is similar to the cheaper Portal, has a 10.1-inch screen and costs $229.

To make a call, a person must say “Hey Portal” to activate the device and then ask it to call one of their connections within Facebook Messenger, a current requirement for Portal users for video calls. But people who receive those calls are not required to own a Portal, and can instead take them on their smartphones as long as they are using Facebook Messenger.

For now, only a limited number of apps are available on Portal, including Spotify, Pandora, the Food Network, and Facebook’s video service Facebook Watch. Facebook executives said other video apps, like Netflix or YouTube, may be added later. If the Portal eventually contains multiple video and music streaming apps, it can effectively serve as a mini-television and stereo.

Oddly, Portal will debut without the IGTV video app created by Facebook’s Instagram division. That app, which premiered over the summer, is intended to be a rival to the popular YouTube service.

Rafa Camargo, the vice president of Portal, said IGTV will eventually be added later.

The $199 Portal video calling device. Facebook

The Portal’s debut comes at a pivotal moment for Facebook, which is facing the biggest crises in its history. Last month, Facebook said it had suffered a major hack that may have compromised the accounts of up to 50 million users.

Before that, the company was sent reeling over the Cambridge Analytica scandal, in which an academic researcher sold Facebook user data—obtained through a quiz app—to a political consulting firm in violation of the company’s policies. It also took flak for failing to stop fake information from spreading on its core social networking service during the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign.

Facebook’s user growth is slowing in key places like the U.S. and Canada, raising questions about its future growth. Pushing into consumer electronics would help the company create a new source of revenue outside of its core online ad business.

But entering the consumer electronics is no guarantee of success, especially as competitors like Amazon and Google expand their smart-speaker and home gadgetry lineups. They have a big head start and longer track records of creating consumer electronics.

Camargo, who previously worked on Google’s shuttered Project Ara modular smartphone and helped launch Amazon’s first Echo speaker and Fire tablets, is hopeful that Facebook’s video technology will make Portal stand out.

The company’s “smart camera” technology can automatically follow users while they walk and talk in a room. In that way, the user is always centered on the screen, even while moving around the kitchen. The camera is designed to pan slowly so that the image doesn’t move rapidly. The goal is to free people from having to sit still in one place in order for the camera to capture their face.

“We set ourselves to answer the question, what would it take to make people feel they were in a call and to make it feel like they were hanging out in the same room,” Camargo said.

If multiple people are sitting in a living room during a call, users can touch the Portal’s screen to choose which person they want the camera to lock onto and follow. Anticipating questions about privacy, Facebook executives emphasized that the device does not record users’ faces or rely on facial recognition technology.

To add some extra fun to video calls, Portal users can add silly animations to people’s heads like a big cat. Additionally, a “story time” feature lets parents who are traveling read bedtime stories to the kids while animations appear on screen that go with a particular children’s book, like The Three Little Pigs.

Currently, there are only five animated stories available on Portal. But Camargo said that the company is talking to unspecified book publishers to add more.

Portal will start shipping in late November in time for most of the holiday season, executives said.

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In the wake of its recent privacy missteps, Facebook is heavily emphasizing privacy in marketing the Portal. The device doesn’t record conversations and, according to the company, “only sends voice commands to Facebook servers after you say, ‘Hey Portal’ to activate a voice call.”

In terms of the camera, users must manually activate it to turn it on—and only during video calls, Camargo said. For extra “peace of mind,” users can cover the lens when not on calls by attaching a small plastic latch, he added.

Although the Portal’s underlying software is built on a modified version of Google’s Android mobile operating system, Camargo explained that people can’t simply download Android-based apps onto the device like a smartphone. Facebook must first approve the apps.

One notable Portal feature is that Amazon’s voice-activated digital assistant Alexa comes installed. With Alexa, people can shop for items on Amazon’s retail store and do tasks like order rides from Uber, as long as third-party companies have built so-called skills for Alexa.

Facebook shuttered its own M virtual assistant in January. At the time, it said it was “taking these useful insights to power other AI projects at Facebook.” It’s unclear if it plans to incorporate any of M’s related virtual assistant technology into Portal at this time.

Camargo said that “Amazon has been a great partner” and acknowledged that the retail giant has “their own strategy with Show.”

Regarding the numerous smart speakers on the market, Camargo believes that Facebook is “giving you great value, more value than all of these home devices,” emphasizing the Portal’s video technology, which he said “there is nothing else like it.”

As for why people should trust Facebook to create a video device that resides in their homes, Camargo said “We built privacy onto every layer” of the device.

“Everything is an opt-in,” Camargo said, emphasizing that the Portal won’t do anything without someone explicitly asking it to do something.

It’s a familiar line from Facebook executives, who have later had to apologize after data mishaps that seemingly caught them off guard.

Whether the Portal will be a hit with consumers could hinge on the public’s trust of the company, especially as they let Facebook further into their homes through more devices than just smartphones or personal computers.