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Facebook confirms it’s working on an AI voice assistant for Portal and Oculus products

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It may not really be a true Alexa or Google Assistant competitor

Illustration by Alex Castro / The Verge

Facebook has confirmed a report from earlier today saying it’s working on an artificial intelligence-based digital voice assistant in the vein of Amazon’s Alexa and Google Assistant. The news, first reported by CNBC, indicates Facebook isn’t giving up on a vision it first put out years ago, when it began developing an AI assistant for its Messenger platform simply called M.

This time around, however, Facebook says it is focusing less on messaging and more on platforms in which hands-free interaction, via voice control and potentially gesture control, is paramount. “We are working to develop voice and AI assistant technologies that may work across our family of AR/VR products including Portal, Oculus and future products,” a Facebook spokesperson told The Verge today, following the initial report. That means Facebook may not position the product as a competitor to Alexa or similar platforms, but as more of a feature exclusive to its growing family of hardware devices.

CNBC reported that the team building the assistant is working out of Redmond, Washington under the direction of Ira Snyder, a general manager at Facebook Reality Labs and a director of augmented and virtual reality at the company. Snyder’s LinkedIn page also lists him as director of a product called Facebook Assistant, which is likely the internal name of the project. It’s unclear if that will be its final, commercial name when it does launch.

CNBC says the project has been in the works since early 2018, shortly before Facebook announced it had shut down its M personal assistant service. Facebook also tried its hand at building a robust network of bots that would layer AI throughout Messenger and power automated chatting features, news alerts, and even mobile games, though the Messegner bots haven’t really taken off.

This project and the various divisions involved in bringing it to life highlight the goals of Facebook’s new approach to experimental technology. Since it acquired Oculus in 2013, the social network’s forward-looking divisions have taken various organizational structures, most recently in the form of a new pair of divisions.

The first of the those two divisions is the AR/VR hardware group responsible for developing the Portal video chatting device, and that division now also includes the remnants of Facebook’s disbanded Building 8, a secretive division formerly run by former DARPA director and Google employee Regina Dugan, who left the company in late 2017. The second division is now known as Facebook Reality Labs, run by video game pioneer Michael Abrash, who became a Facebook employee by way of Oculus and now holds the title of chief scientist at the VR company.

It seems the Facebook AI assistant is being jointly built by both teams, with Snyder seemingly holding positions at both divisions. Whatever the eventual purpose, it’s clear Facebook is treating its growing family of hardware devices as conduits for a shared vision for the future, one in which AI is layered throughout Facebook-owned platforms and not restricted to singular products.