As Facebook works to contain the fallout from its biggest-ever data breach, the company is introducing a product that will bring a camera and microphone into your living room. Facebook Portal, and the larger Portal Plus, are smart displays that are laser-focused on video chatting.
The first hardware products marketed under the Facebook brand, the Portals can be used to call other Portal users, or anyone who has Facebook or Facebook Messenger. The Portals can play music through Spotify and Pandora, or stream video from Facebook Watch, but these are intentionally limited devices. For better and for worse, you can’t even browse Facebook.
The smaller Portal closely resembles Amazon’s Echo Show, while the bigger one looks like something that would take your order at a fast food restaurant. The larger Portal Plus stands out wherever you put it, and would probably work best in a living room, while the regular Portal would more easily blend into your kitchen, like a countertop TV.
The Portal is designed to simplify video chatting by having a wide-angle camera capable of identifying your body, then tracking you as you move around the room. It makes for more comfortable chatting than holding a phone up to your face for extended periods of time. Facebook says the Portal is designed to create the sense that you’re sharing one big room with the people you’re talking to, and considers the chats you have on the device an augmented reality experience.
With the Portal, you don’t have to hold, aim, or direct anything. Once a chat starts up, the device’s camera will automatically find people in the room and keep them in frame. If multiple people are in a room, the camera will use a wide angle to fit them all. If there’s only one person, the camera will zoom in to focus on their face. Facebook says this feature makes video chatting more natural, since you can just talk without worrying about camera angles.
Still, the idea of putting a Facebook-connected camera and microphone into your home is likely to give many consumers pause. A majority of Americans say they don’t trust the company very much or at all, and the Portal’s launch was delayed in hopes it could escape the long shadow of the Cambridge Analytica data privacy scandal.
Facebook’s Portal team recognizes that they have a trust deficit with consumers. Both devices come with a camera cover, and they both have a button that completely turns off the mic and camera. Facebook says this doesn’t just deactivate the mic and camera, but physically cuts the circuit to prevent hacking attempts. “Those electronics are not accessible from the software, so you have to be physically on the device to connect it back again,” says Rafa Camargo, vice president of the Portal hardware team.
Still, trust concerns are likely to dominate the initial reception of this device: even if the Portal provides an amazing chat experience, it has to overcome the many hurdles associated with the Facebook name.
Camargo says Facebook attempted to “build privacy from the ground up and on every layer of the stack” when making the Portal. Many options on the device are opt-in, including a feature that lets other Portals see when you are actively using the device and are presumably more open to chatting.
“We made certain choices that even now our trial users are saying ‘I want it,’” Camargo says. “But we made a choice not to offer certain things just to make sure people understood the focus on privacy on the device.”
Facebook didn’t build any video recording features into the Portal, in hopes that people would trust the camera more. But the Portal also has an always-listening voice assistant for initiating calls, which needs to send voice data to Facebook’s servers to be processed. That’s all logged in your Facebook settings, too, and if you want to delete it you’ll have to do so manually.
Despite the privacy concerns, what Facebook has made with the Portal isn’t all that different from Amazon’s Echo Show — in many ways, it’s less ambitious. The Echo Show debuted with a mode that lets you automatically start a video chat with a trusted contact. It came with no camera cover or deactivation button, either.
If people can get past those concerns around Facebook, they’ll find a dedicated video chatting experience that’s easier than what they’re used to on a phone. In a short demo, the camera’s tracking worked as promised. As we moved around the room, the Portal camera tracked us so that we were never out of frame for the person on the other end. Facebook says it worked with an Oscar-winning cinematographer to figure out how the camera should pan and zoom; you can tell they put some thought into it, but the actual effect is closer to the lagging movements of an awards show camera operator trying to keep a person in frame as they walk up to the stage. It’s not bad, it’s just a funny effect to see inside your home.
Beyond that, chat on the Portal works just like the video chat feature already built into Facebook. You can chat with multiple people at once and overlay goofy masks and effects. The Portal also includes some special features, including the ability to simultaneously play the same music for every Portal user in a video chat (so long as everyone has an account on the same music service). Facebook also built a “story time” mode that brings up a script on the storyteller’s Portal while displaying art and effects for the person on the other end. In a demo, we saw the storyteller’s face get overlaid with a Big Bad Wolf mask as they howled during a rendition of the fairy tale.
Video chatting quality was surprisingly good — it still had the flat, sharpened look that accompanies every video chat, but looked better than the typical Facebook Messenger call. “Because we own the whole hardware stack, we invested a lot in both the video capture and compression technology,” Camargo says. Facebook is also using a more modern compression technology for voice and audio, which he says will come to Messenger eventually, as well.
There’s little difference in the hardware between the two Portals. The smaller model has a 10-inch, 720p screen and two speakers. The larger model has a 15.6-inch, 1080p screen; two louder speakers; and a subwoofer, making it better for playing music. The Portal Plus also has the advantage of a rotating screen, which can switch between landscape and horizontal orientations while you’re chatting.
When it’s idle, the device will scroll through Facebook photos from you and your friends. Facebook says it will only use photos from albums that you’ve selected or photos you’ve been tagged in. You can also use the device to watch shows on Facebook Watch or The Food Network. Then there are apps for Pandora, Spotify, iHeartRadio, and a news service called Newsy.
Then there’s Alexa. Facebook gave up on making its own virtual assistant earlier this year, opting for a partnership model instead. Camargo said the Portal could add Google Assistant later, and the settings screen has a section labeled “assistants,” suggesting more are coming.
And that’s it. Presumably more apps will come later, but Facebook isn’t yet opening up the platform to developers. That has its benefits: problematic political memes and misinformation are going to have a much harder time coming to the Portal than they do to the News Feed.
But the limitations might also prove to be frustrating for users of the product. You can’t watch YouTube; there’s no web browser; WhatsApp and Instagram are nowhere to be found; and you can’t send or receive normal Facebook messages, even if they’re video recordings. If you buy the Portal, you have to really want to video chat with other people on Facebook, and do so from one room in your home, on something other than the phone or laptop or tablet that you likely already have. I use Facebook video chat a good deal with my fiancée when she travels, but I’ve only ever used it with her; my family uses FaceTime, and most of my friends would never pick up an unexpected video call.
Facebook will start selling the Portal in November, with the smaller model selling for $199 and the Portal Plus selling for $349. Facebook will also be offering $100 off if you buy two at a time, and it seems to be hoping people will pick up a pair of Portals, then hand one to a relative they want to stay in touch with. Like much about the product, it’s not a bad idea — so long as you’re okay with it all being tied back to Facebook.
Correction October 8th, 1:39PM ET: Due to an editing error, this article initially stated that the Portal’s voice assistant is “powered by Amazon’s Alexa.” Facebook developed its own voice assistant for initiating calls, and the two services run concurrently.