We’re about to find out what happens when you cross a webcam with an iPad and sprinkle in a little robot learning. Facebook is said to be currently working on this hybrid out of its brand-new hardware division, Building 8–which happens to be looking for employees, if you’re interested in making social hardware.
The proposed Facebook video chat tablet would offer the best of several worlds–the high-quality camera of a webcam, the standalone OS and big screen of a tablet, and the machine learning of an artificial intelligence bot. It could become a must-have new device for social networking, or it could just turn out to be an iPad with a built-in link to Facebook Messenger’s new group video chat function.
Either way, Facebook’s move into the hardware field does bring the promise of a new way to interact online, freeing social media from your desktop or smartphone, and putting it in a device that could sit on your living room coffee table. Let’s look at the context for this device, and what it might look like.
A Facebook Video Chat Tablet
Bloomberg carried the first details of the unnamed new prototype in early August. It described the video chat tablet as a 13- or 15-inch touchscreen that will run on the Android OS, and feature a Siri-style voice assistant and smart camera technology. It is currently being tested in private homes, and will get its full debut at Facebook’s F8 Developer Conference in April next year.
The only other information Facebook has revealed is that the device’s wide-angle camera lens, speakers, and microphones will be powered by artificial intelligence, to boost performance. Just how that will happen is a mystery, but Bloomberg said the camera would be able to lock onto and track objects, such as faces.
That artificial intelligence feature should be the real news here, because there are already a couple of standalone video calling devices on the market, and of course tablets of various manufacturers are already able to host video calls using common apps such as Skype and Google Hangouts.
The Competition: Existing Standalone Devices
This new device does seem to closely resemble Amazon’s Echo Show video calling device that went on sale in June of this year. As with the Facebook device, the Echo Show is a voice-activated, standalone video caller intended to become part of the furnishings in your living room. The Echo can play videos and songs, act as a digital photo frame, and make video calls on voice command using Amazon’s Alexa AI.
Amazon, however, sacrificed screen size to include a built-in stereo-quality speaker within the unit, leaving it with a 7-inch display no bigger than a smartphone. That means that the Facebook version’s 15-inch display should prove a big point of difference.
The other competition Facebook will have to contend with is the Google-backed bloom. Also a free-standing all-in-one unit, bloom is video calling designed for the elderly, and does nothing but make video calls, albeit with big touchscreen pre-programmed icons that make it easier to operate, and a sensor that lets distant relatives know the person is currently standing near the device.
Now, Facebook has name recognition and user loyalty enough to earn its new product plenty of interest and pre-orders, so I’m not worried about it being a commercial failure. What I am hoping the existing competition will do is push the social media giant into making full use of its AI potential and producing something unique that takes video conferencing to a level.
What Do We Want from Facebook’s Tablet?
The prime reason for thinking Facebook can deliver something worthwhile is that new hardware wing, Building 8. This device will be the first product to roll off that assembly line, and you’d imagine Facebook would want to make a big splash with something more advanced than a tablet for your coffee table.
So, let’s hope this “smart” camera really does have a few tricks to show us. Peripheral webcams have long offered a better video calling experience in part because of the dedicated processors that allow them to move, zoom, and focus in ways that built-in laptop and phone cameras cannot.
Perhaps Facebook’s new toy will be able to mimic that kind of movement. This locking feature might be able to automatically follow us around the room, so we can sit in front of it on our couch and have it follow as we point out a new vase on the other side of the room. Perhaps it could be gesture driven, so that we’d only need to point (after giving a voice command to activate the tech) to the vase and the camera would automatically go find it. It would be truly unique if the camera was spherical in design, and able to rotate through 360-degrees. There’s also a good chance the AI will be able to automatically adjust for poor lighting and acoustics, as the latest webcams already do.
Then there’s the potential to use that big screen for displaying streaming and on-demand content within a video call. Perhaps the AI could search out content related to the conversation and beam it to us within an additional chat window.
Finally, if the device includes infrared technology–again, already present in webcams, take a look at our Logitech Brio review–it should be able to sense a human’s presence and automatically fire up every time someone sits down opposite on the couch. Perhaps it could use facial recognition, a common use for infrared, to identify the user and bring up their frequently called contacts, or their frequently visited websites, presuming it has an internet browser (a pretty safe assumption considering Facebook is wholly online).
Making hardware is taking Facebook into uncharted waters, but there’s no doubting the company’s ambition and financial resources. Let’s hope next April brings us a portable device as advanced as a webcam, as big and touchable as a tablet, as connected as a smartphone, and as smart as a chatbot.