Although you might already be inundated with Facebook notifications on your phone, the company is finding new ways to enter your life. The social media giant has revealed its first-ever smart gadget: a voice-controlled video chat device called Portal.
Portal is designed to be hands- and distraction-free, unlike your laptop and smartphone. It features an AI-powered “Smart Camera” that can follow you as you move, and “Smart Sound” microphone technology to focus on your voice and fade out background noise. The company’s press release states that “it’s like having your own cinematographer and sound crew direct your personal video calls.”
All calls are made through the company’s Messenger app, and the device comes integrated with Amazon’s Alexa virtual assistant technology, which you can access by saying, “Hey, Portal.” Your Portal will be able to do everything Alexa does, including checking the weather, getting the score of the Giants game, or even ordering your groceries.
When you’re not using it to talk to friends and family (up to seven at once), the screen can display your Facebook photos and calendar reminders. Your loved ones don’t need to own their own Portal to reach you, either—they can easily see you on their own laptops and smart phones, as long as they have the Messenger app.
Facebook’s new device is somewhat similar to the Amazon Echo Show, a digital hub that also features video calling. But the Echo Show lacks Portal’s advanced audio and visual technology, and the Portal also comes in two versions (a 10-inch or 15-inch model). Another important difference is that in order to use the Echo Show, the person you’re calling has to have the Alexa app or their own personal Echo.
Unfortunately for Facebook, tempers are still flaring over the company’s recent data breach, which affected 50 million accounts. Naturally, many people aired their grievances on Twitter:
I'm sorry, but Facebook’s VP of Portal saying "we built privacy into each one of these layers" after Cambridge Analytica, the Sept. breach and @kashhill's revelation that they harvest 2 factor phone #'s is belly-laugh ludicrous. Also, these disclaimers 👇 pic.twitter.com/EmF9ulFRDY
— John Paczkowski (@JohnPaczkowski) October 8, 2018
An inside look at Facebook Portal in your home pic.twitter.com/mTtj1wPAsC
— Niv Dror (@Nivo0o0) October 8, 2018
Facebook attempted to comfort consumers by highlighting Portal’s security features, like its easily disabled camera and microphone, and emphasizing the security-centric approach to its development.
“We understand that inviting a camera and microphone into your home is the kind of thing that will give a consumer pause, especially for a new category of products around video calling that haven’t been really common for consumers to have access to,” the executive in charge of the Portal’s launch, Andrew Bosworth, told the BBC. “And so not one week ago nor six months ago, but two years ago we started on a privacy-first plan for this product.”
Both versions of the device are available now for preorder on Facebook’s website as well as on Amazon and Best Buy. The 10-inch Portal retails for $199 and the larger Portal Plus will set you back $349, and they’ll begin shipping in November. That should be enough time to get over your privacy concerns, right?
UPDATE: Facebook revealed that the Portal would in fact take user data, like length and frequency of calls and apps used on the device, to tailor ads on other Facebook-enabled devices.
In an email to Recode, a Facebook spokesperson said, “Portal voice calling is built on the Messenger infrastructure, so when you make a video call on Portal, we collect the same types of information (i.e. usage data such as length of calls, frequency of calls) that we collect on other Messenger-enabled devices. We may use this information to inform the ads we show you across our platforms. Other general usage data, such as aggregate usage of apps, etc., may also feed into the information that we use to serve ads.”