Facebook has begun a strategic revolution for the social network giant which is aiming for a slice of the smart speaker market that is currently dominated by Amazon and Google with the launch on Monday of a range of AI-powered video-calling devices.
“It’s been a big shift for the company,” Facebook’s vice president of consumer hardware Andrew Bosworth told AFP before the launch of “Portal”.
“We’ve seen a rise of video calling, on both Messenger and WhatsApp — it has been a tremendous trend,” he said.
But the launch of a product putting a camera into people’s homes is likely to raise privacy issues for the social media giant, which has suffered several major data breaches this year involving tens of millions of user accounts.
The device, which will be available for pre-order in the United States from Monday, is designed to allow 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.
Although the social media giant acquired virtual reality headset manufacturer Oculus in 2014, this is the first time it has developed a consumer hardware product in-house.
“At some point, we realised that if we want to continue to advance our mission, the hardware we’re dealing with… is limiting, and so we find ourselves building our own hardware to try and accomplish that mission,” Bosworth said.
– ‘Hey Portal’ –
Offering hands-free voice control, Portal comes in two sizes, a 10-inch screen which retails at $199 (173 euros) and a 15-inch version will go for $349. And to start the call, all it takes is: “Hey Portal.”
During calls, it can also play music on Spotify or videos from Facebook Watch, as well as tell children stories via augmented effects app Story Time.
And it also 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 they walk around, even picking out their voice over background noise.
But 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, with it only sending voice commands to the servers after hearing, “Hey Portal”.
The camera can be blocked by a cover and the device has a button for disabling both the lens and the microphone