Facebook makes foray into world of connected devices with Portal

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Portal device. Image: Facebook

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Facebook aims to compete with Amazon as it launches video-calling device.

As it searches for new revenue streams, online giant Facebook has launched a new device called Portal, which runs on Facebook Messenger. While the company was originally not focused on hardware, this shifted with its acquisition of Oculus, effectively turning the company into a virtual reality (VR) device manufacturer.

In 2010, Mashable interviewed CEO Mark Zuckerberg, who insisted that the company’s goals were not in the hardware space at all. At the time of the interview, the smartphone market was only kicking off and there was reluctance to compete with Apple and Android devices. As the market has evolved, however, so too has the company ethos around building physical devices.

While the device is said to be a way of streamlining and improving the many video calls taking place on the Facebook Messenger platform, there are some people who believe its release is somewhat ill-timed.

How does it work?

The device is relatively straightforward and is similar to the Echo Show, from Jeff Bezos’s Amazon. The front camera is 12MP and the large HD screen allows the user to see the other person or people at the opposite end of the call.

It uses Amazon’s Alexa voice commands, as well as its always-listening functionality. It is clear that the company has noted people’s concerns when it comes to the latter, as both sizes of Portal come with buttons that disable the microphones and cameras.

Portal can also play music through Spotify and Pandora, play Facebook Watch videos, and cycle through photos in selected albums.

Facebook says more apps and content are on the way soon. The smart camera included in the device has a 140-degree field of view and can recognise people in the frame, cropping the image automatically. It can also follow subjects around a room. As opposed to using facial recognition technology, it uses computer vision to discern people in the frame.

Controversy paused release date

The company had originally planned to pull the curtain back on Portal at F8 earlier this year, but the Cambridge Analytica scandal meant the project was put on ice for several months. Portal’s launch comes just a couple of weeks after a second security incident at the company, this time involving the theft of access tokens.

A statement from the company said that Portal will not “listen to, view or keep the contents of your Portal video calls” and added that the calls are secure in transit due to Messenger’s encryption. It also has the ability to delete your voice history in Facebook’s Activity Log.

Taylor Hatmaker at TechCrunch makes the point that while the device could be seen as useful for people and may indeed prove popular, the market timing for its debut is pretty poor, considering many people are looking at ways to manage and scale back their usage of the Facebook platform.

With video-calling growing exponentially more popular, the Portal device may prove to be a stronger seller than predicted, but it is difficult to think of a more unsuitable time for such a product to launch from the company.

Ellen Tannam is a writer covering all manner of business and tech subjects

editorial@siliconrepublic.com