Facebook wants to be invited into your living room. The company has revealed details about its Amazon Echo competitor, a voice-controlled, webcam-equipped smart screen named Portal.
Arriving in the US in November, Facebook Portal is a 9 (£152) 10-inch screen, with two speakers and a high-quality webcam attached, which the company hopes users will put in their living rooms and kitchens and use to launch video chats with friends and loved ones.
The device, which also comes in a larger model, Portal+, for 9, can play music from Spotify, videos from Facebook Watch, and act as a photo frame when not in use. 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.”
Surprisingly, the device is not just a competitor to the Echo; it also has Alexa built-in. Amazon’s smart assistant will handle the more conventional commands, such as setting timers, adding items to a shopping list or checking the weather.
The smaller Portal comes in at less than Amazon’s Echo Show devices, direct competitors that offer similar features. In Facebook’s favour, beyond the price difference, is the fact that the company can hook Portal’s videoconferencing features into Facebook and Messenger, two services that cover a substantial chunk of the human race between them.
Facebook has also built technology to ensure that the webcam can track and pan around the room, keeping the caller in-frame without requiring them to sit or stand in one position, or constantly readjust the device. “Our goal is to make you feel present in the same space as the person on the other end,” said Rafa Camargo, the Facebook vice-president overseeing Portal.
But Portal has one big stumbling block to overcome: Facebook’s brand.
The product was reportedly ready to be revealed to the world in March, according to a Bloomberg report at the time. But the company chose to delay the launch by six months due to the unfolding Cambridge Analytica scandal, amid concerns that it was the wrong time to ask users to trust Facebook with more personal information.
In the intervening six months, Facebook has also acknowledged the largest data breach in its history, admitting to regulators that more than 50m accounts were compromised due to a bug that it discovered and fixed in September.
The company is trying to bolster its privacy credentials with the release. Portal includes no facial recognition technology, a built-in physical shutter for the camera, the camera and microphone can be disabled with the tap of a button, and even the camera-tracking feature runs entirely on-device. Facebook also promises it will not use Portal data to target users with adverts on its site, and says the device itself will not include any adverts – at launch, at least.
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