Facebook wants to fix video calls with Portal, a $200 gadget that lets you talk to your Messenger friends

facebook portalThe Portal and Portal+.Rob Price/Business Insider
  • Facebook has announced it is launching a video-chat and smart speaker device, the Portal.
  • Facebook Portal will launch some time in November for $199, with a larger-sized Portal+ model costing $349.
  • The gadget is the first time Facebook has built and sold hardware under the Facebook brand.
  • It comes as Facebook battles multiple scandals, and the company is emphasizing the Portal’s privacy features.

Facebook thinks video-calls are broken — and is betting people are willing to pay for a better experience.

On Monday, the Silcon Valley tech giant unveiled the Facebook Portal, a video-chat and smart speaker device, that will start shipping in November 2018. It’s a significant announcement for the company, one that takes it directly into competition with the likes of Google and Amazon, and represents its first foray into building consumer hardware under the Facebook brand. 

The Portal, which comes in two sizes, is designed to be used for video calls with users’ friends, and it integrates directly with Facebook’s chat app Messenger.

The Portal will sell for $199 and the larger Portal+ for $349, and will only be available in the US. The company declined to say whether it would be making a profit on sales of the device. It’s available for pre-order today, and will start shipment some time in November, Facebook says. 

The devices also doubles as a voice-controlled home assistant and smart speaker in the vein of the Amazon Echo or Google Home. Facebook’s Portal comes with Amazon’s Alexa voice assistant built-in, allowing it to respond to voice commands to carry out various tasks.

It’s an interesting time for Facebook to offer a product like this: Facebook has been rocked in recent months by a string of scandals — from a hack of 50 million users’ accounts to Cambridge Analytica — and its approach to user privacy is under intense scrutiny. At a demonstration in San Francisco with Business Insider prior to the Portal’s launch, company representatives were quick to emphasize a number of privacy features the device offers, from a camera cover to an outright ban on video recording.

facebook portalThe larger-screened Portal+.Rob Price/Business Insider

Better video calls

Facebook say it’s launching the Portal to try and solve one of the big problems with video calls — namely, that they’re just not very good. Often conducted on small smartphone screens, they’re a pretty poor approximation of actual human connection.

“We designed them from the ground up to really address all the friction that exists today in video calls, and get people from the feeling of being in a call to really feeling that they are together, that you’re in the same space, that you’re hanging out,” said Rafa Carmago, VP of Portal. 

At rest, The 12-inch Portal and 15-inch Portal+ (pronounced “Portal Plus”) are basically fancy digital photo frames, showing a pre-selected assortment of the user’s photos from your Facebook feed. Unless explicitly switched off, the  camera and microphone default to always on, listening out for commands and monitoring to see if someone is in the room. 

facebook portalRob Price/Business Insider

The user wakes it with a command and it can call both other Portal owners and people via Messenger. It features a 140-degree wide-angle camera, and will automatically track the user as they move around, cropping the image around their face, meaning the user isn’t stuck having to sit squarely in front of the screen. In testing, it was accurate, albeit not always as fast as the subject’s movements.The screen on the larger Portal+ is rotatable from landscape to portrait, letting the user adapt it for one-on-one calls or chats with groups.

As a smart speaker, the Portal can do all the things you’d expect, playing music, reading the weather, and a variety of other tasks. Interestingly, Facebook has opted to use Amazon’s Alexa AI assistant for most non-call tasks, rather than build its own, in-house virtual assistant.

Smart speakers have exploded over the last few years, with the Amazon Echo leading the way — but it remains to be seen if consumers will be willing to invite Facebook’s always-on microphones into its homes given the company’s history. Facebook representatives stressed a number of privacy features during the briefing, including a hardware button that would deactivate the camera and microphone, a cap that can be placed over the lens to physically block its line-of-sight, and a decision not to allow video-recording of any kind using the device.

Facebook also says there are no plans to display ads on the device.

facebook portal cameraThe camera on the Portal+. The circular button on top deactivates the camera and microphone.Rob Price/Business Insider

So what about the hardware itself? The Portal has a 10.1-inch screen with a 1280×800 resolution, and weighs a little under three pounds. The Portal+, meanwhile, has a 1920×1080 15.6-inch screen and weighs 7.4 pounds. Both have 12 megapixel cameras.

There had been reports that Facebook originally planned to unveil the Portal at the company’s F8 conference in May 2018, but shelved the plans amid the Cambridge Analytica scandal. Carmago, however, flatly denied that this was the case.

The device also has potential to be used as an enterprise video-calling device in offices, though Facebook said it won’t launch with any integration with Workplace, the business version of Facebook the company sells to organisations.

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