Say hello to Facebook's Portal

The social media giant has launched a video-calling device powered by artificial intelligence

Facebook's Portal comes in two sizes - a 10-inch version and a 15-inch one.
Facebook's Portal comes in two sizes - a 10-inch version and a 15-inch one.PHOTO: REUTERS

LONDON • Facebook has made the call to tap a market dominated by Amazon and Google, launching on Monday a range of AI-powered video-calling devices.

"We've seen a rise of video calling, on both Messenger and WhatsApp," Facebook's vice-president of consumer hardware Andrew Bosworth said before the launch of Portal.

The device, which will be available for pre-order in the United States, allows users to make video calls at home without having to stand immediately in front of the screen or hold a phone at arm's length.

But the launch of a product putting a camera into homes is likely to raise privacy issues for the social media giant, which has suffered several data breaches this year involving tens of millions of user accounts.

Although Facebook acquired virtual-reality headset manufacturer Oculus in 2014, this is the first time it has developed a consumer hardware product in-house.

Offering hands-free voice control, Portal comes in two sizes, a 10-inch screen which costs US$199 (S$275) and a 15-inch version for US$349.

To start a call, all one has to do is say: "Hey Portal". During calls, it can also play music on Spotify as well as tell children stories via augmented effects app Story Time.

And it comes bundled with Amazon's voice interface Alexa, enabling users to shop or control household appliances.

During a conversation, the integrated camera can automatically zoom out to include a second person or be instructed to follow a certain individual as he walks around.

Facebook has moved to quickly allay security fears, saying that by keeping the processes on the actual device rather than in the cloud, the risk of hacking is lower than with a smartphone or computer.

Calls will be encrypted and the AI technology runs locally on Portal, not on Facebook servers.

It sends voice commands only to the servers after hearing, "Hey Portal". The camera can be blocked by a cover and the device has a button for disabling the lens and microphone.

Security is a sensitive issue for Facebook, which had 50 million of its user accounts breached by hackers last month.

Earlier in the year, it was forced to admit that the personal data of tens of millions of users had been hijacked by Cambridge Analytica, a British firm working for then United States presidential candidate Donald Trump in 2016.

The firm is accused of collecting and exploiting users' personal data for political purposes without their consent. Facebook has since reasserted itself as a guarantor of privacy.

The company worked with a US film director to make the camera movements feel natural, said Mr Nick Fell, marketing director for the Portal team.

"We set out to try and make video calling so good that it feels like you're sharing the same physical space as someone else," he added.

Wireless speakers and video calls are a growing market.

There were 17 billion video calls on Messenger last year, double the number in 2016.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 10, 2018, with the headline 'Say hello to Facebook's Portal'. Subscribe