Chances are that you are one of Facebook’s 2 billion users. Their messenger app alone has nearly 1 billion users. Your phone probably has a camera and a GPS, and it certainly has a microphone.
Did you know that by using the Facebook service, you are giving them nearly unlimited access to these features? Can you imagine how much data is constantly being generated? How much do they know about you?
Facebook is always accused of always listening to our conservations but it looks like it is about to level up its eavesdropping game by — guess what — by going all the way with its very own always-listening device! Read on and see if you will ever want to have one of these in your home.
Behold the Facebook Portal
Facebook just unveiled the “Portal,” its own smart speaker with a touchscreen display and with a built-in camera. Sounds familiar? Yep, you’re right. It’s totally reminiscent of the Amazon Echo Show.
The Portal comes in two flavors — a $199 10.1-inch version and a bigger $349 model with a relatively large 15.6-inch display. Both versions will start shipping in November, but you can pre-order one now if you so desire.
What separates the Portal from the Show, of course, are a number of unique features, some of them revolving around Facebook services, naturally.
First, you can make video calls with it; but it needs to be logged in with your Facebook Messenger account. You can communicate with anyone on Messenger on a phone or tablet, (even with users without a Portal) and you can even make group calls to up to six people.
One interesting feature is the Portal’s ability to automatically pan and zoom its camera based on who’s talking within a shot. It’s all software-based, but with its user detection system, it can zoom in to a speaker’s face and follow them around the room automatically as if there’s a director framing the shots.
Similar to Facebook’s other apps, those goofy real-time filters can also be applied to your video such as digital mustaches, cats on your head, funny masks, etc.
To make a Facebook Messenger call on the gizmo, simply say “Hey Portal” to activate it, then tell it to call one of your contacts in Facebook Messenger. (Not exactly an original concept since the Amazon Echo and the Google Home have been doing this for years. Check out this guide.)
For listening, Facebook’s Portal uses a 4-microphone array and like other smart speakers, it is always waiting for its trigger phrase.
And to power the Portal’s voice features, Facebook didn’t actually design its own smart assistant from scratch. The gadget uses Amazon Alexa smarts to handle voice recognition and perform tasks like music playing and controlling other gadgets.
There are even a limited number of apps that are initially available on the Portal, including music services like Spotify and Pandora and video outfits like the Food Network and Facebook’s own Facebook Watch. Facebook stated that other video apps like Netflix or YouTube may be offered through the Portal down the road.
Speaking of multimedia experiences, another unique ability of the Portal is its ability to share music from Pandora on a group chat and have the same music synced between your friends in real-time. It’s like, in Facebook’s words, “as if you were all in the same room together.”
When it’s idle, you can have the Portal do a slideshow of your select Facebook Photos and do birthday reminders.
Portal is still limited at launch
But despite this Facebook integration, the Portal can’t access your Facebook Newsfeed nor can you browse the web with it. Facebook Live is oddly not even available for it as of yet.
The Portal, of course, is Facebook’s first foray into completely designing and developing its own piece of consumer electronics. (Nope, the HTC First, known as “Facebook Phone” doesn’t count since it was merely an HTC Android phone with a custom skin.)
Facebook said that the Portal is just the start and it’s hoping to release more of its in-house hardware soon.
Privacy concerns, naturally
Facebook knows that the inevitable privacy concerns will arise by releasing such a product. With the Cambridge Analytica fiasco and the recent access token hack, people are understandably wary of letting a camera-enabled device from the social media giant into their homes.
Well, to alleviate those concerns (sort of), the Portal includes a built-in physical plastic cover that users can slide over the camera anytime. However, its microphones are another matter altogether and like other smart assistants, they are required for the gadget to function properly.
For this reason, Facebook stated that Portal owners can completely disable the camera and microphones whenever they feel the need to. A four- to twelve-digit PIN can also be used to keep the screen locked.
Facebook also claims that all video chats are encrypted and not recorded or shared with Facebook. No ads are displayed on Portal gadgets (for now, at least.) Any data that’s collected via Alexa goes to directly to Amazon and not shared with Facebook (or so they say).
How about Facebook’s scary facial recognition technology? Well, for now, Facebook calmly assures everyone that the Portal’s AI technology doesn’t use its proprietary facial recognition software and it runs locally on the device itself and not from Facebook’s servers.
Will Facebook keep its word?
Hmm, that’s a lot of assurances from a company that wants to collect as much data from its users as it can. Well, as you all know, terms of service can change, user privacy agreements can be modified and software can be updated at any time.
It’s not all about facial recognition nowadays, object recognition is also a valuable tool for data aggregators. It may sound like a tinfoil mad hatter concern, but given its penchant for directing targeted ads based on a user’s interests, income level, and demographics, what could stop the Portal from scanning your home for pertinent objects it can identify to clue it into your consumerist habits? Well, there’s the Portal camera cover, apparently, but that’s beside the point.
Camera aside, how about the always-listening microphones? It looks like Facebook wants to get into the whole voice recognition data game that its competitors like Amazon and Google already have a leg up on. User data is super valuable nowadays and speech recognition data? Even more so.
Can the Portal compete?
Privacy concerns aside, judging by the Portal’s current feature set, there are not enough compelling features that give it an edge over something like the Echo Show. Granted, it’s a good way to utilize Facebook’s Messenger service but other than that, it’s still sorely lacking any other must-have abilities.
Another big thing going against it is its outrageous price. $199 for a 10-inch version and $349 for the 15-inch version just to get a Facebook camera in your living room? An Amazon Echo Show can do much more with roughly the same price point.
It’ll be interesting to see if the Portal will be successful, especially with everything that’s stacked against it and Facebook itself. If consumers stay away from it, given its limited features and its pricing, we can simply lump it together with the HTC First — just another Facebook project that didn’t get enough likes.