Facebook has just made their first hardware products. They are called the Portal and the Portal+, and they are smart displays which are very focused in getting you hooked to the idea of video chatting. You can call anyone else who has a Portal, or anyone who is your friend on Facebook Messenger. You can stream video using Facebook Watch. It can also play back music using Spotify or Pandora. Amazon’s virtual assistant Alexa is built-in, to answer your questions about the world and simplify calendars etc.
These two smart displays are, in many ways, the rivals for the Amazon Echo Show and the Echo Spot, both of which are also all about large displays and a visual experience of using a smart speaker with a virtual assistant.
It is a tad perplexing that you can’t browse Facebook on these. The Portal has a 10.1-inch display and is priced at $199 (around Rs15,000), 10-watt speakers and a 12-megapixel smart camera that 140-degree viewing angle. The larger Portal+ has a 15.6-inch display with Full HD resolution, the same optical hardware as the Portal, larger 20-watt speakers and is priced at $349 (around Rs25,800).
The Portal and the Portal+ are designed to track you as you move around the room, which certainly will be more comfortable than holding up a smartphone or a tablet during a video call or being planted in one spot while using a laptop for a video call. If more people join the conversation around you, the camera will adjust to include all of them in the frame.
Facebook knows that we will inevitably ask the privacy question. It has some preemptive answers ready—good though. You can also disable the camera and the microphone with the tap of a button—the Amazon Echo Spot and Echo Show also offer this privacy feature. Facebook says that all the artificial intelligence (AI) features for the camera are executed on the Portal and the Portal+ and no data is sent to Facebook servers. Facebook also takes pains to explain that these smart displays only sends voice commands to Facebook servers after you say the hot-word, “Hey Portal.” Users can also delete Portal's voice history in your Facebook Activity Log. “Facebook doesn’t listen to, view or keep the contents of your Portal video calls. Your Portal conversations stay between you and the people you’re calling,” says the social media network.
There is the Home and Away feature which is turned off by default. Once you enable this, Portal devices use your phone’s location to know when you are at home. If you are indeed at home, and someone calls you on the Facebook Messenger app, the Portal will also ring.
All this is very cool. No doubt about that, and we are fans of smart speakers and smart displays that reduce the requirement to pick up a phone for certain tasks such as web searches, playing music or even making a call to friends and family. However, this is 2018. And we are talking about Facebook. The same Facebook, which is having a rather torrid time of it with the data we have given it on a platter on the social media platform. And now the same Facebook wants to put a smart camera (one that can actually track us and more) and a microphone in our home, our living room and our bedroom. One that knows when we are home, and when we aren’t. One that claims to only listen and process when we say something to it specifically. One that says it has nothing to do with the Facebook Newsfeed. One that says there are no adverts “at this time” but reserves the right to disagree later. Here we are, just a few days after the announcement of the largest ever data breach on Facebook—50 million accounts were potentially compromised. That, to top up the March revelation about how Cambridge Analytica walked off with the data of as many as 90 million users.
The thing with smart speakers and smart displays, such as the Amazon Echo devices, the Google Home and the Apple HomePod is that you have a closer bond with them over time, than you may have with a service you access on a web browser or a smartphone app. It is a proverbial circle of trust. Some have faltered too at some point, including one Amazon Echo speaker accidentally mailing out a conversation to an unintended recipient. Others will stumble too. But right now, Facebook is already asking for a giant leap of faith from consumers.
As good as the Portal and the Portal+ may be, this has to be the worst ever timing in the history of product launches. If you still want one, these displays are up for preorder in the US and will ship in November.