Such is the level of trust most of us have with Facebook, I could tell you the company’s new webcam can scan your home looking for brands and digital devices and you’d probably believe me. Thankfully, that’s not true. In fact, if you can get past your privacy fears, the new Facebook Portal video chat device actually looks quite impressive.
The all-in-one home hub device was released earlier this month and represents one of the social media giant’s first steps into the world of hardware manufacturing. The finished product too closely resembles offerings from Apple, Google, and–most notably–Amazon to be called innovative, but its hands-free approach to video calling is a welcome step toward integrating visual communication into our now daily flow of text, social media, and internet searches.
Facebook Portal certainly seems worth a look–as long as you can convince yourself that the only people looking back at you are the ones you just invited to a video call.
The Facebook Portal Video Chat Device
We first heard about Facebook’s plans to enter the world of video hardware in the final quarter of 2017, when Bloomberg revealed the company’s ambition to create a new form of video chat tablet. VC Daily used the announcement to make something of a wish list of items we’d like to see in a Facebook-backed video calling device, and we’re glad to say a few of those appear to have been granted.
The resulting Portal is just a tablet on a stand, but it is a genuine video calling device, and it has some nice AI-backed features. You can see it in action in the video below:
As for what we had in mind, well, there’s some good news. Firstly, Facebook has made good on its promise that the device would feature a laptop-competitive 15-inch display, and the screen also swivels between portrait and landscape modes (at least on the larger version of the device, the Portal+).
Facebook did also deliver on our request that users be able to lock the camera onto a specific person and ignore the movements of others.
Next up was a request for smart tracking, to free us up to move around the room as we video chat. If you watched the video above, you’ll know that’s been ticked off as well and it seems like a responsive device (if a little slow). Now, we didn’t get the full 360-degree range of motion a spherical cam could have provided, but the Portal does seem to have hopped on board with the latest trend in video conferencing: auto tracking and framing, in which the camera senses movement and automatically adjusts the zoom to keep everyone in the picture. That tech means the Portal can maximize its wide-angle lens to capture an entire room of callers or zero-in on a more intimate conversation. Facebook did also deliver on our request that users be able to lock the camera onto a specific person and ignore the movements of others.
Those features alone mark the Portal as a genuine video calling platform, rather than just another social media device with video calling tacked on as an afterthought, in the way Instagram and Snapchat have treated the medium. However, the Portal does have a range of masks and graphics that’ll cover your face and home in cartoons, so there’s still some Snapchat-inspired goofiness for your kids to play with.
But as you might guess, not everything is totally rosy with the Portal.
Amazon Echo and Those Privacy Concerns
The basic version of the Facebook Portal video chat device looks and seems to act a lot like Amazon’s Echo Show, which was released in mid-2017. The Portal screen is three inches bigger, which is handy, but otherwise, both units strike the same balance between home entertainment hub and video calling. You can surf the web, call friends, post to social media, and start a call all through voice commands. The Portal+ goes a lot further, and you’d be safe in considering the bigger, more expensive model–it costs $349 as opposed to $199–as the only real innovation here.
What hasn’t changed with the Portal is Facebook’s now-notorious penchant for collecting user information for the purposes of advertising revenue. Things started well enough with the official release accompanied by a list of security features, including:
- The ability to disable the camera and microphone
- Presence of a camera cover and password protection
- Promises by Facebook not to observe or record calls
- AI software that runs on the Portal itself and isn’t linked to Facebook servers
The company did, however, later admit that data about who you call and which apps you access could be used to target advertisements at you on other Facebook properties.
So, despite the recent storm of bad publicity it has endured over recent years, Facebook will continue to use your habits to generate targeted ad revenue. And if that keeps you from trying the Portal or the Portal+, we can understand–especially given the relative similarities to the iPad or the Amazon Echo Show.
You may not be reading out your credit card numbers over a video chat, but you’re potentially exposing your private conversations and the inner sanctum of your very home to outside sources.
It’s a shame that an otherwise intriguing video calling platform will probably be overshadowed by the money-making methods of the overarching parent company. The Portal+ looks quite impressive, and seems to at least attempt to hit a new social video calling niche that’s more dynamic than a messaging service and more intelligent than a tablet.
Video calling, however, is the most intimate form of digital communication currently available. You may not be reading out your credit card numbers over a video chat, but you’re potentially exposing your private conversations and the inner sanctum of your very home to outside sources. Our conclusion? View the Portal+ as a piece of clever technology if you can, but don’t make yourself uncomfortable online for the sake of a swiveling screen and a perceptive camera.