Even as Facebook Inc. faces intense scrutiny of its privacy practices, it is launching a pair of video-chat devices that will give it a deeper connection to what users do. Facebook enters the smart display space with two devices namely, Portal and Portal+. These devices are voice-controlled speakers with touchscreens that focus on video chatting with Facebook Messenger.
The devices will cost about $199 for Portal and $349 for Portal+.
Portal has a 10-inch, 1280×800 touchscreen with a speaker sitting at the bottom edge, facing the user. It has a small camera at the top.
Portal+ has a mammoth 15-inch, 1920×1080 display that can rotate into portrait and landscape orientations. The speaker sits at the bottom of the display, while a camera sits at the top.
The Portal camera detects how many people are in the room and automatically zooms in based on the crowd. The microphone array detects and amplifies the voice of the person speaking even if that person moves.
The Portal+ has a more powerful speaker that has two tweeters with high-range frequency and a single, four-inch bass speaker for richer sound. Both devices have a four-mic array that’s designed to pick up your voice no matter where you are located in the room.
The microphones go hand in hand with Facebook’s Smart Sound technology that’s embedded into both Portal devices. It minimises background noise and enhances the speaker’s voice during video chats, while the company’s Smart Camera technology pans and zooms to keep you in-frame while you video chat.
Both devices come loaded with Amazon Inc.’s Alexa voice-assistant software and this allows users to complete tasks like checking the weather and ordering groceries.
Pressing the “mute” button on either of the devices stops the circuit running to the Portal’s camera and microphone so the features are cut off from power. The Portal also comes with a physical shutter that goes over the camera.
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Both devices come with privacy features. Facebook confirms that it doesn’t listen, view or retain the contents of video calls made over Portal. The Portal camera doesn’t use its facial-recognition software to identify people using the device. Voice commands uttered after saying “Hey Portal” are sent to Facebook’s servers but can be deleted.
Portal doesn’t come with the Facebook or Instagram apps. Users must log in using Messenger, which doesn’t require users to have a Facebook account. These choices were intentional according to Facebook representatives because the company intended that Portal focuses primarily on communication, rather than browsing.
These features run locally on each Portal device, not on Facebook servers.
The devices’ launch comes as Facebook is under fire for how it handles user data. Aside the Cambridge Analytica saga, last month, Facebook drew additional criticism when it disclosed the largest security breach in its history.
Company officials insisted that in developing the Portal devices, Facebook took pains to show customers it will be responsible with their information.
The devices were developed by the company’s Building 8 unit, which is dedicated to making consumer hardware. Facebook had initially planned on launching Portal at its annual developer conference in May, but pulled it back partly because the device wasn’t ready, according to reportd.
As hardware is still a new venture for Facebook, it’s launch recently of its first consumer device, the Oculus Rift virtual-reality goggles, ran into shipping problems as well as rising competition from HTC Corp. and Sony Corp.
The devices are available for preorder online through Facebook, and online and in retail stores through Amazon. The devices will start shipping in November.