Facebook has created a new way to videochat with your Facebook friends. It’s not an app, nor is it some awkward virtual-reality playpen. It’s a device called Portal, and it’s meant to sit in your living room and serve as a two-way conduit for conversations with faraway friends and family. It has a 12-megapixel camera on the front, and a big, bright HD screen so you can see the person on the other end of the call. It uses on-board AI software to make the calls look and sound better than the calls made with competing devices, of which there are many.- Advertisement -
That’s right. Facebook is selling a device with a camera on it that peers into your home, and it’s doing so just two weeks after a massive security breach exposed the private information of 90 million users. So there’s a lot to talk about. And we’ll get to the privacy stuff. First, a Portal primer.
Portal comes in two sizes. The larger Portal+ costs $349 and has a 1080p screen that rotates into either portrait or landscape mode with a gentle push. The smaller Portal costs $199 and has a 720p screen that stays stationary. Facebook is also selling the Portal in bundles that knock $100 off the total price for two devices. This bundle pricing nods to Portal’s target audience: families, and particularly those with young children and grandparents who live hundreds of miles apart. Buy a Portal for you, buy a Portal for nana and pep-pep, and the elderly Facebookers can sing their granddaughter a good morning song, read her an animated storybook that plays out on the screen, or simply watch her take those precious first steps. Cute!
You can call any of your Facebook contacts on the device, regardless of whether they have a Portal. As long as they have Facebook Messenger on their phone or tablet, you can initiate a video call. When Portal is dormant, it serves up photos from your Facebook library, and it can play music from Spotify and Pandora, or videos from Facebook Watch. (More apps and more content are coming soon, Facebook says.) You can also use it to query the internet or control your smart home, as it comes with Alexa, because Alexa is everywhere.
Video calls on Portal are initiated not with Alexa, but with a unique wake phrase, “Hey Portal.” Tell Portal who you want to call, and the Portal (or phone) on the other end of the line rings and shows a prompt to connect. Each Portal comes with a plastic clip you can slip over the camera, ensuring no unexpected caller will ever see you mid-dhanurasana—unless you want them to.
On the surface, the Portal devices work much like the Amazon Echo Show or the Google-Assistant-powered Smart Displays from companies like JBL and Lenovo. Laptops, smart TVs, and tablets can host videochats too. Indeed, we’ve entered a bit of a videochat renaissance, with manufacturers deciding that video calls on a phone are not and never will be good enough for anyone, despite the fact that they are good enough for almost everyone.
If Portal is going to get you to put down your phone or laptop, it’ll need a leg up. That’s where AI comes in.
Be Seeing You
The camera on the front of the Portal runs a bit of software with the on-the-nose name of Smart Camera. The lens has a 140-degree field of view. That’s wide enough to slurp up a whole living room, and about on par with a GoPro’s lens. But when the Smart Camera software recognizes a human in the frame, it crops the image and zooms in, and it does so smoothly, like a skilled cinematographer would.
Get up and walk around, and the camera follows you, staying zoomed in. If there’s more than one human in the room, Portal will zoom out and recrop to fit everyone in the frame. If you want to zoom in on just one person, tap the screen and select “Spotlight mode,” which locks Portal’s camera onto one face and body, keeping that person centered in the frame no matter who else comes and goes. The features are clever, and make the Portal feel miles more advanced than other dedicated videochat devices.
We should keep an open mind about these two-way video machines, because they are growing increasingly smart and useful.
When I asked about the AI features in a product demo, the Facebook reps were careful to point out that Portal is not using facial-recognition technology. Instead, it’s using computer vision to discern human shapes, find the face at the top of that shape, then follow that shape around the frame. The reps also stressed that your video is not being beamed to a data center where it’s analyzed by an AI server farm then sent back wrapped in metadata. The AI code powering those features is loaded onto each Portal, and that’s where the object tracking happens. It’s a trick similar to what Google was able to accomplish by loading AI code onto its Clips camera, enabling the camera to perform some rudimentary computer-vision analysis with no help from the cloud.
The Portal also uses an AI audio algorithm called—wait for it—Smart Sound to identify human speech and sweeten it so it stands apart from background noise. The audio AI code lives on the device as well.
Regardless of how you feel about Facebook and how it uses your data, you may feel creeped out by any device that sits in your house, staring at you while you butter your toast, read magazines, and binge Fargo. But I’d argue that we should keep an open mind about these two-way video machines, because they are growing increasingly smart and useful.
I’d also argue that every single one of these devices should come with physical buttons to disable the cameras and microphones. Both Portals do. In addition to that clip that slides over the lens, there are buttons on both devices that switch off the camera and mic with a single tap. Access to the device can also be restricted with a passcode.
The company says it will not “listen to, view, or keep the contents of your Portal video calls,” and that your calls are secure, since they take place over Messenger and are encrypted in transit. Portal also offers the ability to delete your voice history in Facebook’s Activity Log as often as you want.1
Still, the proliferation of these AI-infused, sensor-laden smart-home devices continues to foster unease among those who don’t want cameras, AI, Facebook, or even screens occupying prime real estate on the shelf under the Matisse. Families who use Facebook as a valuable tool for staying in touch will see Portal as a no-brainer holiday purchase. Others may see it as nothing more than a home invasion, and given the current discussion around the value, abuse, and teeter-tottering security of user data, who can blame them?
1Update: October 8, 12pm EDT. An earlier version of this story misstated the way calls on Portal are encrypted.