More than two years ago, Facebook tasked a team with creating a piece of hardware to integrate Facebooks family of apps more closely into peoples lives. The result of that effort is Portal and Portal+, 10-inch and 15-inch devices, respectively, that were designed for making AI-enhanced video calls with Facebook Messenger. They are available for the first time this week. Portal responds to basic voice commands for making video calls and playing music and comes with Amazons Alexa. Here are some thoughts on Facebooks first piece of consumer hardware, which competes with similar smart display devices, like the Amazon Echo Show or Google Home Hub. The first thing to note after about a week with a Portal+ is that the AI-powered enhancements Portal brings to video calls are not just a novelty — as advertised, on-device machine learning makes video calls better. Smart Camera is AI that anonymously recognizes people in a video call, so every shot is automatically framed based on the people in that shot. The camera on both Portal devices is able to cover 140 degrees of view so no matter where you are in the room, if you can see the Portal camera, it can see you. Smart Volume also enhances calls by ensuring your voice is consistently heard, whether youre standing in front of the device or across the room. These two features are a big plus if you make video calls with a laptop or smartphone and are used to having to constantly reposition the camera or repeat what youre saying because you were too far away from the microphone. These are also features currently unavailable from other smart display competitors. Smart Camera can be disorienting for people, however. On my first call with a friend, he said: It looks like youre in the same room but creepy. Another feature that sets Portal apart from almost any of its competitors is its in-call experiences. These include augmented reality effects and filters like the kinds available today on Messenger — so you can put a cat on your head or toss on a cool hat and shades. Theres also Storytime, a collection of half a dozen five-minute stories. Today theyre all for kids, but the Portal team at Facebook will invite third-party developers to build experiences with AR for video calls, which will introduce experiences adults can do together, as well a larger Storytime collection. A Storytime animationIn-call experiences also include the ability to listen to streaming music like Spotify with a caller, but you both have to be using Portal devices for this sort of thing to work. Another feature that sets Portal apart from its competitors is the ability to quickly sling a call from Messenger on Portal to Messenger on your smartphone. This is important when you need to move away from Portal and is really useful for privacy. For example, during one call with a close friend, the conversation began to drift to a sick family member and his relationship with his girlfriend. Since there was another person in the room with me, I quickly moved the conversation to my phone by tapping a button in the Messenger app, and I left the room. After Cambridge Analytica and repeated privacy breaches, the question for a lot of people is whether Facebook can be trusted to enter their home, though the same could be asked of Google and Amazon. Using a device so closely associated with Facebook reminded me that — like a lot of people — I dont use Facebook as often as I used to. It also made it clear how many of my friends have deleted their accounts or stepped away from Facebook. Beyond core family members, and even though Facebook Messenger has 1.3 billion monthly active users, it was a challenge at times to get even close friends on the phone. Even though calls are encrypted and there are no recordings, I dont think the privacy issue will be made easier by the fact that Portal devices, as previously reported by Recode, use information about Portal usage habits to sell ads on Facebooks apps. To address privacy concerns, Facebook says Portal is unable to take or share any photos or video recordings during calls, or even to take screenshots. On the downside, this makes for a far less capable device and takes away the option of sharing interactions in social media. When its not in use, Portal device deploys something called Superframe, displaying photos from your Facebook profile and recent photos of friends that appear in stunning clarity on the devices screen. Superframe also recommends friends you can call, though these suggestions were never able to nudge me to make extra calls. Portal requires you to manually pick your favorite friends one by one, and their images are then included in Superframe. This is rather different from the carousel of news articles and reminders Amazon has on its home screen or the Live Albums that smart displays with Google Assistant inside are able to use. After five or 10 minutes of watching the Superframe, I got a sense of how much Ive missed from my core group of friends who still use Facebook, but while I enjoyed catching up, the content began to repeat itself rather quickly. It was also frustrating that I couldnt double tap the screen or use generic Portal voice commands to like a photo or comment or to scroll through a friends latest Instagram posts. The omission of such social elements on a device made by the biggest social media company on Earth is perplexing, to say the least. Showing me awesome recent photos by friends and family without giving me the ability to like or comment is a bug, not a feature. The lack of Stories for Portal at launch is also confusing. Facebooks facial recognition software could have been extremely helpful for switching between accounts for multiple people in a household, though Im pretty sure this would have made the heads of privacy advocates explode and could have potentially made Portal dead on arrival. One feature Facebook — as well as the makers of ambient displays for Google and Amazon — could consider making is a physical gesture to remove a photo from an album. You dont really have control over which photos your friends are tagged in, so when photos appear on the screen that may not be suitable for kids, you need a quick way to address that beyond skipping to the next photo with a swipe. Of course, the gadgetry, AI, and quality display are all for nothing if the Portal cant cut it when playing music, the top use case for smart speakers everywhere. The Portal delivers sound quality and output comparable to a Sonos One or Amazon Echo Show, providing a mixture of rich quality, crisp tones, and bass that makes using the Spotify app on Portal fun. But in contrast to playing music on an Echo or Home speaker, you will not be able to treat your phone like a remote control. Portals ability to recognize voice commands was a bit underwhelming. In comparison to Google Assistant or Alexa, music requests werent easily understood. If youre a dedicated Facebook user who spends a lot of time keeping up with friends on the app, you may find Portal is worth the price of admission. Whether you find Portal valuable or not may depend heavily on whether youre the kind of person who makes a lot of family video calls. Portal allows video chats with up to seven people, so families could consider getting one to share a common digital photo album and make calls. And the ability to move freely around a room while still being seen and heard has inherent value. In my lifetime, video calls have gone from non-existent to standard, but often with poor clarity and choppy footage that lead to frustration. For a lot of people, including me, periodic video calls to check in with family members elsewhere else in the world have become a routine deserving of a device that delivers video with little latency and clear communication. People have a lot of choices when it comes to ways to make video calls, including Skype, the Alexa app on Amazons Echo Show, and Duo on Google smart displays. The Lenovo Smart Display even provides a portrait mode option like Portal+, though of course lacking things like Smart Volume and Smart Display. Overall, you will have to ask yourself whether the calling feature is a big enough plus for you. The answer may also depend on whether you already have something like a Google Home or Amazon Echo. Beyond making calls, Im excited to see if working with third-party developers can improve Portal over time and stitch together an ecosystem of in-call experiences. At launch, the Portal+ has some noteworthy elements, but it will likely be a lot more interesting six months to a year from now when more third-party apps and in-call experiences are made available. Most people may be better off waiting for more apps, in-call experiences, and elements from Facebooks family of apps to be included.
When the initial buzz of Portal finally dies down, its the timing that will be remembered most. Theres never a great time for a company like Facebook to launch a product like Portal, but as far as optics go, the whole of 2018 probably should have been a write-off. Our followup headline, Facebook, are you kidding? seems to sum up the fallout nicely. But the company soldiered on, intent to launch its in-house hardware product, and insofar as its intentions can be regarded as pure, there are certainly worse motives than the goal of connecting loved ones. Thats a promise video chat technology brings, and Facebooks technology stack delivers it in a compelling way. Any praise the company might have received for the products execution, however, quickly took a backseat to another PR dustup. Heres Recode with another fairly straightforward headline. It turns out that Facebook could in fact use data collected from its Portal in-home video device to target you with ads. In a conversation with TechCrunch this week, Facebook exec Andrew Boz Bosworth claims it was the result of a misunderstanding on the companys part. I wasnt in the room with that, Bosworth says, but what Im told was that we thought that the question was about ads being served on Portal. Right now, Facebook ads arent being served on Portal. Obviously, if some other service, like YouTube or something else, is using ads, and youre watching that youll have ads on the Portal device. Facebooks been serving ads on Portal. Facebook is working to draw a line here, looking to distinguish the big ask of putting its own microphones and a camera in consumer living rooms from the standard sort of data collection that forms the core of much of the sites monetization model. [T]he thing thats novel about this device is the camera and the microphone, he explains. Thats a place that weve gone overboard on the security and privacy to make sure consumers can trust at the electrical level the device is doing only the things that they expect. Facebook Portal+ reviewFacebook was clearly working to nip these questions in the bud prior to launch. Unprompted, the company was quick to list the many levels of security and privacy baked into the stack, from encryption to an actual physical piece of plastic the consumer can snap onto the top of the device to serve as a lens cap. Last night, alongside the announcement of availability, Facebook issued a separate post drilling down on privacy concerns. Portal: Privacy and Ads details three key points: Facebook is quick to explain that, in spite of what it deemed a misunderstanding, it hasnt switched approaches since we spoke ahead of launch. But none of this is to say, of course, that the device wont be collecting data that can be used to target other ads. Thats what Facebook does. So I sent my mom that newfangled Facebook PortalI can be quite definitive about the camera and the microphone, and content of audio or content of video and say none of those things are being used to inform ads, full stop, the executive tells TechCrunch. I can be very, very confident when I make that statement. However, he adds, Once you get past the camera and the microphones, this device functions a lot like other mobile devices that you have. In fact, its powered by Messenger, and in other spaces its powered by Facebook. All the same properties that a billion-plus people that are using Messenger are used to are the same as whats happening on the device. As a hypothetical, Bosworth points to the potential for cross-platform ads targeting video calling for those who do it frequently — a classification, one imagines, that would apply to anyone who spends $199 on a video chat device of this nature. If you were somebody who frequently use video calls, Bosworth begins, maybe there would be an ad-targeting cluster, for people who were interested in video calling. You would be a part of that. Thats true if you were using video calling often on your mobile phone or if you were using video calling often on Portal. Facebook may have painted itself into a corner with this one, however. Try as it might to draw the distinction between cameras/microphones and the rest of the software stack, theres little doubt that trust has been eroded after months of talk around major news stories like Cambridge Analytica. Once that notion of trust has been breached, its a big lift to ask users to suddenly purchase a piece of standalone hardware they didnt realize they needed a few months back. Certainly, the headwinds that we face in terms of making sure consumers trust the brand are ones that were all familiar with and, frankly, up to the challenge for, says Bosworth. Its good to have extra scrutiny. Weve been through a tremendous transformation inside the company over the last six to eight months to try to focus on those challenges. The executive believes, in fact, that the introduction of a device like Portal could actually serve to counteract that distrust, rather than exacerbate it. This device is exactly what I think people want from Facebook, he explains. It is a device focused on their closest friends and family, and the experiences, and the connections they have with those people. On one hand, I hear you. Its a headwind. On the other hand, its exactly what we need. It is actually the right device that tells a story that I think we want people to hear about, what we care about the most, which is the people getting deeper and more meaningful hashes of one another. If Portal is ultimately a success, however, it wont be because the product served to convince people that the company is more focused on meaningful interactions versus ad sales before. It will be because our memories are short. These sorts of concerns fade pretty quickly in the face of new products, particularly in a 24-hour news environment when basically everything is bad all the time. The question then becomes whether Portal can offer enough of a meaningful distinction from other products to compel users to buy in. Certainly the company has helped jumpstart this with what are ultimately reasonably priced products. But even with clever augmented reality features and some well-produced camera tracking, Facebook needs to truly distinguish this device from an Echo Show or Google Home Hub. This is the first Facebook-branded hardware, says Bosworth. Its early. I dont know that we have any specific sales expectations so much as what we have is an expectation to have a market thats big enough that we can learn, and iterate, and get better. This is true, certainly — and among my biggest complaints with the device. Aside from the aforementioned video chat functionality, the Portal doesnt feel like a particularly fleshed-out device. Theres an extremely limited selection of apps pre-loaded and no app store. Video beyond the shorts offered up through Facebook is a big maybe for the time being. During my review of the Portal+, I couldnt shake the feeling that the product would have functioned as well — or even better, perhaps — as an add-on to or joint production with Amazon. However, that partnership is limited only to the inclusion of Alexa on the device. In fact, the company confirms that we can expect additional hardware devices over the next couple of years. As it stands, Facebook says its open to a broad spectrum of possibilities, based on consumer demand. Its something that could even, potentially, expand to on-device record, a feature that would further blur the lines of what the on-board camera and microphone can and should do. Right now, theres no recording possible on the device, Bosworth says. The idea that a camera with microphones, people may want to use it like a camera with microphones to record things. We wanted to start in a position where people felt like they could understand what the device was, and have a lot of confidence and trust, and bring it home. Theres an obvious area where you can expand it. Theres also probably areas that are not obvious to us […] Its not at all fair to say that this is any kind of a beta period. We only decided to ship it when we felt like we had crossed over into full finished product territory. From a privacy perspective, these things always feel like a death by a million cuts. For now, however, the company isnt recording anything locally and has no definitive plans to do so. Given the sort of year the company has been having with regards to optics around privacy, its probably best to keep it that way.