Trailing Amazon and Google, Facebook Takes Another Shot at Portal Video Calling

Despite struggling to gain momentum, Facebook is doubling down on video calling by releasing four new versions of its Portal video-calling hubs.

The social media giant on Wednesday unveiled the 15-inch Portal+, 10-inch Portal, 8-inch Portal Mini, and Portal TV. The company pitched them as an improvement over the initial Portals, which debuted last year.

Cameras on the devices are said to better track people as they move around a room while speaking. The video hubs also come with more apps, including Amazon’s Alexa digital assistant and music-streaming services Spotify and Pandora along with the ability to make video calls through WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger.

The biggest addition to the lineup is Portal TV, a small device that sits on top of a television. The device, which comes with a remote control, lets Portal users in different places watch Facebook Watch or Amazon Prime shows together by placing a video call that appears in a corner of their TV screens. The idea is to give friends and families the chance to watch streaming shows together—the laugh together and comment—as if they were all in one place. Portal TV does not work with network television or cable.

The new Portal+ ($279), Portal ($179), and Portal Mini ($129) go on sale Oct. 15. Portal TV ($149) debuts Nov. 5.

The prices are cheaper than Facebook’s original Portal, which initially cost $199, and the larger Portal+, which started at $349. In April, Facebook cut the price of those early Portals in half, suggesting poor sales.

The company has declined to disclose any sales numbers.

Facebook faces stiff competition in smart speakers from Amazon’s Echo and Google’s Home—both of which dominate the market. Amazon is expected to control about 63% of the smart speaker market this year while Google is expected to capture 31%, eMarketer predicts.

Meanwhile, late comers like Apple HomePod, Sonos One, and Facebook are struggling to gain traction, according to eMarketer.

Andrew Bosworth, vice president of augmented reality and virtual reality at Facebook, said at a press briefing on Tuesday, that Facebook is “excited” about Portal’s sales results so far. But later, he acknowledged that the company isn’t worried about an immediate return on its investment.

“The most important thing for us right now is getting experiences out there and seeing how people react to them,” Bosworth said.

He added: “We know the smart device category is packed, and it’s really competitive. But Portal is the only device that’s going to connect you with people you care most about.”

Facebook’s new Portals come as the company faces mounting criticism about its data practices. Convincing people that they can trust Facebook enough to put one of its video cameras in their living rooms will be a challenge.

“We have to earn people’s trust every day,” Bosworth said. “That’s not something that will ever stop.” 

In an effort to address privacy concerns, Facebook added new feature to its Portals that let users manually turn off the devices’ cameras and microphones. The devices also come equipped with built-in camera covers (the first generation had removable camera covers). 

Additionally, Facebook gives users the ability to opt out of letting the devices record their voice commands. Facebook, like Amazon and Google, previously recorded all interactions, some of which were reviewed by contractors to improve voice recognition algorithms.

Facebook will track when and with whom users place calls, but it will not collect data about the contents of those calls, said Ryan Cairns, Facebook’s head of Portal. Facebook will also be able to tell advertisers which users are interested in making video calls, but it promised not share any other information with them. 

In terms of features, Facebook’s Portals come with “spotlight,” which lets users select a person in the video frame that they want the camera to follow. This allows people in video calls to focus on who they’re chatting with when there are others nearby.

When Portals are not being used, their owners can turn them into digital picture frames. The devices can pull photos from Instagram, Facebook, or the camera roll of users’ mobile devices.

Portal TV has the same capabilities, but it instead displays photos on the TV it’s connected to.

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