Facebook Shows Smart Video Device On Heels Of Privacy Scandal

Facebook is emphasising the built-in privacy features of the Alexa-powered Portal, which arrives immediately after a major data breach at the company

Facebook has unveiled a pair of gadgets for the home that build on the unexpected popularity of smart speakers, but focusing on artificial intelligence-augmented video chat.

Some industry observers said Facebook’s timing was unfortunate, coming shortly after the company’s latest record-breaking data breach, but Facebook said it has taken a privacy-first approach to the Portal devices — which even feature a plastic lens cover.

The devices compete with video-enabled smart speakers such as Amazon’s Echo Show and the Google Assistant-powered screens from the likes of JBL and Lenovo.

Like them, Facebook’s Portal devices can be used to carry out smart speaker spoken commands, while also powering audio or video chats to other devices — in the Portal’s case, it can make calls to any device or computer that includes Facebook Messenger.

On-device AI

But Facebook is counting on Portal’s on-device artificial intelligence to set it apart from rivals, with AI-powered features including smart video and audio processing.

The Portal devices are designed to be used from a distance of 5 to 10 feet, and use a 140-degree 12 megapixel camera that can capture an entire room in its field of view.

When it detects a human form in the frame, it smoothly zooms in on that person and tracks them around the room.

If several people are pictured, the person viewing the image can use a Spotlight mode to select one person they want to zoom in on, for instance focusing in on a toddler even as its parent continues speaking.

Smart Camera mode automatically reframes the image when people enter or exit the room.

Portal includes augmented reality graphics that can be layered onto the image, which can be used for comedy effect or to add to the effect of stories that are included with the devices.

When they’re not in use for calls, audio commands can be used to trigger songs from Spotify or Pandora, while the screen can display photos from the user’s Facebook library or videos from Facebook Watch, in addition to smart speaker functions such as controlling in-home devices.

During calls, users can also play songs on both their own device and that of the user receiving the call without an echo effect.

The devices support one-on-one calls as well as group chats.

The Portal+ flagship device includes a 15.6-inch 1080p display that can rotate on its stand to provide landscape or portrait images. It’s priced at $349 (£270).

The lower-end Portal uses a 10.1-inch 720p display, has less powerful speakers and costs $199.

Both support up to four Facebook accounts.

Facebook is taking pre-orders for both now, and is planning to begin shipping them in November, with discounts for devices bought in pairs.

Built-in privacy

Facebook has become known for its numerous privacy scandals over the years, including a security breach disclosed earlier this month that resulted in the theft of personal data on nearly 50 million users.

With the Portal devices, the company emphasised it is placing an emphasis on privacy from the beginning, with both devices featuring a plastic clip that can be placed over the camera when it’s not in use.

They also feature a physical button at the top of the screen that switches off both the camera and the microphone.

Facebook also noted that the AI used to process audio and video is located on the device itself, meaning the content isn’t being sent to remote servers for analysis.

Calls are encrypted, but the encryption is not end-to-end as it is with apps such as Facebook’s own WhatsApp, meaning the company could in theory allow authorities to tap calls.

But Facebook said it will not “listen to, view, or keep the contents of your Portal video calls” and gives users the option of deleting their voice history at any time via Facebook’s Activity Log.

At launch, the devices feature only a few apps, including Facebook’s Watch video service, Food Network recipes and Newsy video news updates. There isn’t an app store for third-party apps.

The company said it isn’t including adverts at launch either, but could technically do so in future.