Anyone who is unaware of Facebook's privacy and security violations does not live in the same century as the rest of us. Between major controversies like Cambridge Analytica and their recent data breach, faith and trust in the company is not in a great place. All of that makes this week's announcement even more surprising: Facebook is launching Portal: an Alexa-powered smart display and video chatting device.
These new devices, dubbed Portal and Portal+, are, on the surface, pretty standard fare. They have a screen, a camera, and a microphone array. They respond to a voice command, in this case, "Hey Portal," and theoretically ignore all other content. They have video calling built-in, using Facebook Messenger, and use the microphone array to minimize background noise. Even the body of the base device looks nearly identical to an Echo Show Gen 2.
While the basics are pretty generic, there are some distinguishing features. For example, using some AI features, the camera is capable of some interesting tricks. As people move around in the frame, or people enter and exit the frame, the field of view can be adjusted automatically. It's like having a director of videography living in your kitchen. This is far from the first consumer product to offer a feature like this - even Skype offers a version - but none of them work quite as seamlessly as the Portal.
The really interesting aspect of the Portal has nothing to do with the product, and more to do with the timing and marketing. With such a low level of trust in the company and their handling of data, bringing out what amounts to a spy device right now has created an interesting scenario for the company: getting people to want a Portal in their home. They've gone to a lot of trouble in their marketing material to create a feeling of privacy. In fact, more of their website is dedicated to privacy than any other feature. Privacy seems to be the only feature that has a sub-page on the domain.
From little things like a camera cover to big things, like locally-running AI, they are talking a lot about privacy. They make one claim that others have made in the past, "Facebook doesn't listen to, view or keep the contents of your Portal video calls. Your Portal conversations stay between you and the people you're calling." Usually, when other companies have made a big deal about this, it has turned out to be misleading at best, and an outright lie at worst. Facebook's track record makes me lean more to the latter than the former.
Are you interested in a Facebook Portal? Let us know in the comments.