Get ready, folks, for a screened smart speaker from…Facebook?
Yep, you read that right. The social media giant today introduced two devices, which are both Amazon Alexa smart speakers with video displays. The Portal and Portal+ are hands-free devices with cameras and microphones for video calls to Facebook friends. As you might have guessed, a Facebook account is required.
If another person joins you on the call, everyone will always be in the frame.
“Both models are designed to make you feel closer to the important people in your life, and make video chats seem less like a call and more like you’re actually in the same room,” according to a Facebook press release.
The two models, offered in white or black, differ in size and functionality. The $199 Portal has a 10-inch display, while the $349 Portal+ boasts a whopping 15-inch pivoting display, which automatically pans and zooms on calls. That way if another person joins you on the call, everyone will always be in the frame. The camera and mics also automatically follow a caller moving around a room while they’re speaking
With each device, you initiate calls to Facebook friends by voice by saying “Hey, Portal.” The portals can be used to communicate with friends who don’t have a Portal via Facebook’s Messenger apps. Call recipients who have both can decide whether to accept a video call on their Portal or Messenger app, and can transfer calls in progress between the two.
The device also features built-in Amazon Alexa functionality. The built-in Alexa speaker means that you can use the device to do everything you can with an Echo speaker, like set kitchen timers and control smart home compatible devices.
Clearly cognizant of ongoing privacy concerns, Facebook says its built in features intended to assure users that they are in charge.
You can disable the camera and microphone with a single tap. There’s a camera lens cover that prevents you from receiving calls or notifications, and you can protect usage of the devices with four- to 12-digit passcodes. You can only change a Portal’s passcode by using your Facebook password.
Additionally, the devices don’t monitor or keep the contents of video calls, which are encrypted to ensure security. The A.I. technology in Portal cameras and mics doesn’t use facial recognition or try to identify callers. Rather, Portals use 2D Pose, which is Facebook’s “…open source technology that can distinguish a body shape from a chair or couch, for example,” a Facebook spokeswoman told Digital Trends in an e-mail.
While Facebook does sell the Oculus Go, developed by Oculus VR, which Facebook acquired in 2015, the Portal devices are the first Facebook-branded hardware products. The devices will compete in a crowded smart display market that includes the Amazon Echo Show, Lenovo Smart Display, and JBL Link View. Although none of those devices are Facebook-centric.
Available now for preorder on Facebook, Amazon and BestBuy, the Portal and Portal+ are slated to begin shipping in November. Facebook is also offering $100 off on purchases of any two portals together, so you can own one and set someone else up with one for $298.