Facebook Unveils Portal, New Voice-Controlled Video-Calling Devices for the Home With Alexa

“Hell, no!”

That’s the blunt response I got from a colleague moments after I started to tell her about Facebook’s Portal and Portal+, the new voice-controlled, video-calling devices with Amazon’s Alexa that Facebook starts taking pre-orders for on Monday.

As in hell, no, I’m not buying.

Another colleague was equally skeptical: “Why would I let Facebook have an internet-connected camera in my home?” he asked.

Such distrust stems not only from Facebook’s most recent revelation that 50 million user accounts were exposed to hackers, but also a prior breach when the social network disclosed that 87 million people had their profiles scraped and improperly shared with Cambridge Analytica, a political ad-targeting firm.

And therein lies the public relations challenge facing Facebook as it unleashes consumer hardware that is all about connecting families who may be miles apart. Never mind that Facebook says it has taken steps with Portal that the company claims will ensure user privacy and security.

Portal and Portal+ cost $199 and $349, respectively, with the former housing a 10-inch, high-definition display (720p), the latter a 15-inch, 1080p screen.

You get $100 off if you buy any two devices, the idea being that you’ll have someone with whom to share a Portal video call. That said, you also could make (or get) a video call to or from someone who has Facebook Messenger on their phone or tablet, though the experience may be lacking compared with a Portal to Portal call.

Nailing the tech part
Facebook certainly appears to have nailed Portal on the technical merits, at least based on my brief demo time in a Manhattan hotel room.

Each Portal model has a smart, AI-driven 12-megapixel camera with a 140-degree field of view. What’s especially impressive is how the camera automatically pans and zooms so that you can see everyone in a room. Alternatively, you can “pin” the camera view to a particular individual you want to follow on the screen.

On the larger Portal+ device, you can swivel the screen so that it is positioned either horizontally or vertically, not the case on the cheaper base model.

Each unit also has a four-microphone array; you initiate calls with a “Hey Portal” command. Facebook says it enhances the voice of whichever person is speaking at the moment, which helps lend the sense of “presence,” or the feeling that everyone is in the same place. That’s a key way Facebook hopes to differentiate Portal from other products or computers that let you make video calls.

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SOURCE: USA Today, Edward C. Baig