Facebook has a new plan to make itself an even more integral part of your life.
The company just revealed its pair of smart speakers: the $199 Portal and $349 Portal+, Facebook’s boldest move yet to move off your phone and into your home.
The launch of Portal, Facebook’s first non-VR consumer hardware project, will almost certainly be clouded by other issues facing the company.
Trust in the social network is at a low, thanks to a year of scandals that has included the Cambridge Analytica fiasco and subsequent #DeleteFacebook movement. Americans report they are less likely to trust the social network with their personal data. Meanwhile, many of those who haven’t given up on Facebook entirely report using the social media site less overall.
But all that has only served to delay the launch of Portal, which was originally slated to launch in the spring at F8. With the holiday shopping season growing ever closer, Facebook is plugging full steam ahead with Portal. Both speakers are available for pre-order now, and will ship next month in the U.S.
Meet Portal and Portal+
There are two variations of the Portal: the $199 Portal and $349 Portal+, both of which are available in black and white. The smaller, entry-level Portal resembles Lenovo’s Google Assistant-enabled Smart Display. It has a 10-inch 1280 x 800 display, a 10-watt speaker built into its base, and a 12 MP camera on top.
The larger Portal+ has a 15-inch 1920 x 1080 rotating display, more powerful 20-watt speakers, and a 12 MP camera on top. It’s larger and, at 7.4 pounds, is nearly three times heavier than the basic Portal.
Other than the size of the speakers and their displays, the Portal and Portal+ are identical in features. Both devices are voice-controlled and optimized for video calls (via Facebook Messenger). The cameras use computer vision software to detect people in the room and can “follow” you as you move around (more on that later). AI-powered software also helps enhance the sound so people’s voices sound clearer.
When you’re not using Portal to video chat, it’s a lot like any other smart speaker. You can listen to music and news, or watch videos from a handful of content partners, including Facebook Watch. You can also use it as a digital photo frame if you want it to display photos from your Facebook profile.
Also of note: Facebook didn’t create its own assistant for Portal. You can control basic functions, like starting a call or lowering the volume, by saying “hey Portal,” but you’ll need to use Alexa for anything more advanced, like checking the weather or setting a timer.
Portal’s marketing lead, Dave Kaufman, notes that it’s “early days” for Facebook’s Amazon partnership, and not every Alexa-compatible skill will be available for Portal at launch, though more functionality will be added over time.
Built on Facebook Messenger
But the primary purpose of the Portal and Portal+ speakers is video calling, so it’s not surprising that the speaker runs on a stripped down version of Facebook Messenger. There’s no inbox, and you can’t read any incoming chats.
Instead, you designate a handful of Messenger contacts as your “favorites,” who you can video call with a touch of the screen or a voice command. As with the Messenger app, you’ll see a green dot over their avatar when they’re online and available to chat.
For Facebook, the key selling point of Portal is not just that you can make voice-enabled video calls. It’s the idea that the devices enable people to feel more like they’re actually hanging out, rather than talking through a series of screens — what Rafa Camargo, Facebook’s VP of Portal, calls “social presence.”
This is most evident in Portal’s “smart camera” technology. The camera, which has a 140-degree filed of view, is able to detect faces in a room (it detects faces the same way your smartphone camera might. Camargo stresses it doesn’t use facial recognition tech, which would allow it to infer who those faces belong to, and uses software to “follow” people around the room as they move.
The effect is meant to feel like you have your own private camera crew following you, according to Facebook. “We almost coined internally a new term because we felt ‘video call’ was too reductionistic of the experience, it’s more about the sense of being together,” Camargo says.
Likewise, there are a few extra features meant to make the video chats feel more “immersive.” Facebook has incorporated its augmented reality effects, for one, so you can add masks to your face while you chat.
Facebook seems to think one of the biggest use cases for Portal will be long distance parents and grandparents of young kids. The fact that the smart camera can essentially “follow” young kids around the room makes it ideal for families with young kids who may not be able to sit still for a lengthy video call with grandma, according to Facebook.
A feature called Story Time is also clearly aimed at young kids. Using the feature, a relative can call up a story to read via Portal. On the reader’s side, Portal’s display will turn into a teleprompter with the story. On the other side, animations and augmented reality effects will appear onscreen to coincide with the story.
What about privacy?
Facebook’s biggest hurdle with Portal will undoubtedly be the fact that it’s, well, made by Facebook. As I noted last month, there’s just not a lot of goodwill for the social media company at this particular moment. It’s difficult to believe that anyone who is even a little bit concerned about Facebook’s many data privacy issues will line up to buy a product that gives the company a direct line into their homes.
To be clear, Facebook is well-aware of this perception (which employees reportedly referred to internally as a “brand tax”), and the company is trying to address these concerns head-on.
In a blog post, the company states that “Facebook doesn’t listen to, view, or keep the contents of your Portal video calls.” It goes on to note that Portal calls are encrypted and that you can access and delete your history of voice commands, if you’re not comfortable with that information being stored on Facebook’s servers.
There are also physical covers for the cameras as well as a switch to disable the Portal’s onboard mics.
But all that will likely do little to dissuade critics who have grown disillusioned with the company. And, at the end of the day, putting a physical device in your home — one equipped with microphones and cameras, no less — requires a lot of trust.
“Hopefully people will also see all the effort that we put on privacy, designing privacy in every layer,” says Camargo.
Interestingly, one area where I think Facebook could have a lot of success with Portal is not in the home, but in offices. Corporate video-conferencing systems are still an expensive, clunky mess — regardless of how many startups claim otherwise. And Facebook, thanks to Workplace, is already primed for the corporate market.
Kaufman, Portal’s marketing lead, agrees, and says they’re already collaborating with the Workplace team.
“Beyond the office use case, telecommuting or working from home is obviously huge as well,” he says. “We think there’s a lot of opportunity there for Workplace to exist as an app [for Portal] so you have your personal experience as well, but you can also jump into the business experience.”
But first, Facebook will have to persuade people to bring Portal into their homes, convincing them not just that the company can be trusted, but that some parts of Facebook may be best when you don’t need a phone at all.