Facebook has recently announced their Facebook Portal, a range of video chat screens for the home, a move that some are calling ‘ill-advised’ amidst the data and security scandals the social media giant has faced over the last year…
Initially meant to launch earlier in the year at their F8 conference, plans for Facebook Portal were put on hold due to the Cambridge Analytica scandal and there’s little wonder why. Putting microphones and cameras produced by the company guilty of exposing 87 million accounts to outside organisations probably isn’t high up on people's’ list of desirable situations. Especially not if they have to pay almost $350 for the privilege.
However, now Facebook Portal is out in the open for the public to consider. Physically, Portal is a small display with a speaker, microphones, and a camera; intended to sit in a family room (like a living room or kitchen). Portal+ features a 15.6in (39.6cm) 1080p display that can be used in both landscape or portrait mode. It is priced at $349 (£270). Facebook has also offered a cheaper option with Portal at $199 (£150), it has a 10.1in 720p display and less powerful speakers.
What can Facebook Portal do?
Both of the Facebook Portals can be used from a distance of between 5ft to 10ft (1.5m to 3m), currently, this is further than the video calls you can make using smartphones and other computers. A 140 degree, 12-megapixel camera is used to show a wider of the room and also allows users to track the movements of individuals within the video’s frame, using the SmartCamera mode the Facebook Pixel can also automatically reframe the image to take account of additional people entering the room. There is even a Spotlight mode (which allows one of the people on the call to zero in on one specific person on the other end of the call and follow their movements on screen and around the room - no matter who else is also on the call) and AR filters; made famous on the likes of Snapchat and Instagram Stories.
The AR mode seems to be particularly attractive to those separated from young children in their lives, as it has storytelling options, making it easier to interact and engage with your child from afar. Check out the video below to see the features of Facebook Portal in action.
Facebook Portal relies on Facebook Messenger to make and receive calls and also features Amazon's Alexa smart assistant, making it easy to operate with voice commands and a simple ‘Hello, Portal’ when you want it to start up. You are also able to utilise group calls (which could be ideal for families and friends spread out across the globe) and play songs from Spotify or Pandora, which can also be played simultaneously on both one user's own Portal and the one receiving the call without causing an echo effect.
As you can see, the benefits are intriguing, but what are security setbacks of Facebook Portal?
No doubt there are security concerns when it comes to the devices. Facebook have gained themselves a reputation in the past, yet claims they have made Portal with security in mind. Tapping the top of the devices allows users to switch off their microphones and cameras, a plastic camera cap is also included and ensures no images are recorded when owners just want to use voice commands. Facebook also stated that they don’t record, listen to, view or otherwise analyse the content of calls on its servers, and the data involved is encrypted.
However, some data is logged, such as call records (including who called who and call length) and any performance issues are taken by Facebook. And while they say the data involved is encrypted, the encryption is not end-to-end and is, instead, digitally scrambled to make it harder to hack. WhatsApp, which is owned by Facebook, is end-to-end encrypted, so it is hard to see why Facebook Portal wouldn’t also be. Theoretically, should there be the cause or ability to, this data could be accessed or tapped into by authorities.
There are also questions surrounding the possibility of ad opportunities on Facebook Portal. At the moment, it’s a solid ‘not right now’. A spokesman for Facebook said: "We're not doing anything today and we'll be very transparent and clear publicly if we do start to do something beyond that,"
Would you buy a Facebook Portal?
The devices will go on sale in America in November, with the intention to release them further afield in mind - however, no details have been provided yet. Overall, it will come down to personal choice, however, the launch and availability of these products come at a not-so-opportune time for Facebook. A sentiment echoed by Wired magazine’s Jeremy White, (product editor) who said it was ‘staggeringly unfortunate timing’.
"The question is whether people will ignore security concerns for the sake of a really convenient device."
- Jeremy White, Wired Magazine
There are also opinions being expressed that Facebook portal is just another unnecessary screen being added to the multitude already in peoples’ homes. Sonos’ Chief XX Spence said the tech industry should focus on creating products that can be integrated into the existing appliances within the home - not creating more and adding to the ‘tech clutter’.
However, despite security concerns, some are arguing that the relatively reasonable pricing of these devices make them appealing to the public and the key would be the adoption of them. More people will want them if they know there are people to call.
At the end of the day, it all comes down to a personal and individual question… Would you buy and trust a Facebook Portal?