Inside an inviting Victorian home in San Francisco, Facebook employees showcase the latest models of the social network’s Portal video chat devices. One model, sitting atop a TV, lets you video chat with friends and family on a big screen. The other devices are arranged on a shelf like photo frames.
Andrew “Boz” Bosworth, who heads Facebook’s augmented and virtual reality business, says the Portal devices help his family stay connected, even though his parents live near his house and see their grandchildren often. Photos of Bosworth’s family appear on the smart displays behind him.
“It’s improved the relationship that not only that I have with my parents but also the relationship they have with my kids, and that’s really meaningful to us,” Bosworth said of the devices.
On Wednesday, the world’s largest social network took the wraps off a new lineup of its Portal video chat devices, underscoring its relentless effort to embed itself even more deeply in the daily lives of its 2.4 billion users. Getting people to bring a Facebook camera and microphone into their homes, though, could be a tough sell. The company’s poor record for privacy will make it hard to convince consumers that the conversations they have in their living rooms will stay there.
Skepticism about Facebook’s privacy chops is well founded. Cambridge Analytica, a political consultancy, harvested the data of up to 87 million Facebook users without their permission. Millions of Facebook-owned Instagram passwords were stored in plain text, making it possible for employees to read them if they wanted to. If that weren’t enough, a researcher recently found a database of Facebook user phone numbers online. Among them: CEO Mark Zuckerberg.
Price is one way Facebook is trying to persuade you to give a try to its Portal products, which run on its WhatsApp and Messenger chat services. The 10-inch Portal, redesigned to look more like a picture frame, got a $20 cut to $179. A smaller version, called the Portal Mini, has an 8-inch display and costs $129. Both devices will start shipping on Oct. 15. The $149 Portal TV device ships on Nov. 5. If you buy two Portal devices, you’ll get $50 off the total.
Like the earlier versions of the Portal, the new devices include an artificial intelligence-powered camera that keeps you in frame as you move, augmented reality effects to transform you into a cartoon character and integration with Amazon’s Alexa smart assistant. Facebook says it improved the camera’s accuracy to the point where it can distinguish a real person from a photo or poster on the wall.
The Portal devices let you stream from Facebook’s video hub and download video streaming apps such as Amazon Prime Video, Showtime and CBS All Access. (Showtime and CBS All Access are owned by CBS, CNET’s parent company.) You can also listen to music from Spotify, Pandora and iHeartRadio.
The devices, which follow the first-generation Portal and Portal Plus that debuted in October 2018, are available for preorder online and in select stores throughout the US, Canada and Europe. They’ll also come to the UK, France, Italy, Spain, Australia and New Zealand. (The company cut the price of the 15.6-inch Portal Plus by $70 to $279 as well).
Facebook’s Portal line faces strong competition from Google Home Hub and Amazon Echo Show. Devices from these tech companies have big leads over the social network’s products, analysts say.
Strategy Analytics, a market research firm, estimates that Facebook shipped fewer than 300,000 Portal devices worldwide as of the end of June. In the second quarter of 2019, the firm estimates the social media giant made up a sliver of the US smart speaker market with just 1% of shipments, far behind Amazon, Google, Apple and Sonos.
A Facebook spokeswoman said the estimates weren’t accurate but declined to say how many devices the social network shipped.
Facebook Portal in the real world
Earlier this year, Eric Burford, a 47-year-old California resident, purchased a Portal for himself and his parents so they could stay in touch with family including his sister, who lives in the UK. Burford’s parents were using another service for long-distance calls, but he figured Portal would be easier and cheaper.
“They don’t have to use all these crazy almost-free solutions to call my sister in England when Facebook is free,” he said.
Burford says his dad unplugs the Portal when he isn’t using the device because he’s concerned about privacy. Burford, on the other hand, isn’t worried that the social network is spying on him.
“I don’t have anything to hide and it’s convenient,” said Burford, who also uses the device as a digital photo frame.
Leslie Edoria-Beaton, 43, said her husband purchased Facebook’s video chat device at the time of her daughter’s birthday this spring when they were on sale. Using Portal was simpler than video chatting on the phone because it’s hands-free, she said.
The Portal Plus sits in her kitchen, and the mother of three from West Virginia uses it every day to call her daughter or play music.
When she’s video chatting with her daughter and her granddaughter crawls into the frame, the camera will pan to the child as she moves around the floor.
“It cracks me up,” Edoria-Beaton said. “I think that’s pretty neat.”
The Portal comes with a cover for the camera lens, a password lock for the screen and call muting. Users can also shut off the camera and microphone, and a red light will indicate they’re off.
The Portal doesn’t display Facebook ads, but the company gathers data about call lengths and frequency that may be used for ad targeting on the social network.
How Facebook collects data from Portal devices could be a sticky issue for the company. The social network’s ad targeting is so good that some usersthrough the Facebook app to serve them ads. The company has repeatedly denied doing so.
Facebook said that when you say “Hey Portal,” a short recording and transcription are created. A team may review a sample to improve the device’s voice-activated services.
Users will be able to view, hear and delete any of the voice commands given to their Portal devices by visiting their Facebook activity log. You can also turn off storage of any voice interactions you’ve had with Portal in your settings so they’re not reviewed.
That might help Facebook generate trust after it’s come under scrutiny forfrom users who had given the social network permission to transcribe their voice chats. (In August, Facebook said it scrapped the program.)
Bosworth said in an interview that putting a microphone or camera in your home is a “heavy lift” for users sensitive to privacy issues. Still, the company thinks the Portal products bring value, helping people feel like they’re in the same room with their friends and family.
“Hopefully, that is allowing more and more people to get comfortable with these devices and feel confident in trusting these devices,” he said.
CNET’s Ian Sherr contributed to this report.
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