Facebook is audaciously launching a video gadget for your home, called Portal. Is that a good idea?

By Kurt Wagner

Today Facebook is unveiling Portal, its version of a kitchen or living-room gadget meant to compete with Alexa devices from Amazon and related gizmos from Google.

But is it really a good idea to pitch people on a Facebook-powered camera and microphone in your home?

In some ways, Portal feels familiar. The device, which has a high-def screen, a built-in camera and four microphones, also includes Amazon’s Alexa voice assistant so you can ask it to perform tasks or answer questions. It also comes with high-quality speakers so you can play music from apps like Spotify and Pandora.

What Facebook is pitching as Portal’s differentiator, though, is its video calling capabilities. People can sync their Facebook account to Portal and make video calls through the company’s Messenger service. Unlike a traditional video call, where participants need to stay within the camera frame in order to be seen, Facebook included what it’s calling an “AI-powered Smart Camera,” which automatically zooms, pans, and focuses as people move around the room.

Facebook even consulted with Hollywood producers to help make the video feel more “natural” and “cinematic,” said Rafa Camargo, the product VP in charge of Portal.

Portal, which comes in two sizes — the $349 Portal+ (“Portal Plus”) with a 15-inch display, and $199 Portal with a 10-inch display — is Facebook’s first attempt at an in-home gadget. (Pre-orders start today, and shipping begins in November. Amazon and Best Buy will also sell it.) Outside of Oculus’s virtual reality headsets, it’s the company’s first consumer hardware attempt at all. It was developed inside Building 8, Facebook’s relatively new, secretive hardware lab that’s also working on futuristic technology that will be able to read people’s thoughts.

Portal won’t be able to read your mind, though the device looks sleek and the “Smart Camera” felt innovative during a brief demo last week in San Francisco.

The most important question with Portal, though, is also the most obvious: Does Facebook have enough credibility to convince people to put a Facebook-powered camera and microphone in their home?

After a year full of privacy and security scandals, there hasn’t really been a “good” time for Facebook to launch an in-home video device this year. Maybe it shouldn’t at all. But here it is.

As a reminder, first there was the Cambridge Analytica scandal, the revelation that Facebook user data from as many as 87 million people was collected without permission by an outside political research agency. It was an incident that also led to numerous questions about how much data Facebook really gathers about users, and which types of data the company then uses for targeted advertising. Facebook also reported multiple software bugs throughout the summer that unexpectedly impacted users’ privacy settings.

The most recent security issue was perhaps the most troubling: A software vulnerability unveiled last month allowed hackers to gain access to some 50 million Facebook accounts. Add that to the fact Russian actors tried to use Facebook to influence the 2016 presidential election and it’s easy to understand why user trust in Facebook may be a problem for an in-the-home video and audio device.

Facebook execs were adamant during an interview that privacy was the “most important” focus when the company was building the device.

“This is something in your living room or kitchen. There should be no surprises on it, period,” said Dave Kaufman, the marketing lead for Portal. “You should know that you have full control over everything you’re saying.”

It’s hard to overstate how important it is for Facebook to get this right. Amazon has had embarrassing one-off blunders with its in-home devices, like when it recorded a private conversation between a couple and sent it to one of their colleagues. But Amazon doesn’t market itself as a place for personal connections and relationships. Facebook does, and those kinds of relationships require trust and privacy. Fair or not, it feels like Facebook will be held to a higher standard than other tech companies invading your living room.

So why do this at all? Facebook will tell you that Portal aligns with the company’s mission to connect people with their friends and family. If you can’t be with someone in person, a video call might be the next best option.

But there are obvious business benefits, too.

Portal sales could provide a new revenue stream for Facebook, and give the company yet another place to display advertising down the line. In-home smart speakers are also taking off in popularity, and all of Silicon Valley’s biggest companies are competing for a place in your living room. Facebook doesn’t want to miss out on this race like it did with the smartphone. Portal gives Facebook a chance to own the actual hardware people use for apps and services, something it’s also trying to do with Oculus’s VR headsets.

Portal’s privacy

What does “built-in” privacy look like?

Video calls through Portal are encrypted, and never recorded or seen by Facebook, Camargo said. Facebook can gather call log data — who you call, when you call them, etc. — but Camargo says that’s the same data it already collects in Facebook Messenger.

The camera will not capture video when it’s not being used for a call, and the microphones will only listen to people when they ask the device to listen, Camargo added. That means Amazon will know what users ask after they awake the voice assistant with “Alexa...” and Facebook will know when someone prompts the device with “Hey Portal...”

Facebook will not process or log any other conversations that take place around the device when it’s not engaged, Camargo said. “If we ever were going to do that, we’d just be killing our business,” he added. “It makes no sense.”

No data collected through Portal — even call log data or app usage data, like the fact that you listened to Spotify — will be used to target users with ads on Facebook or any other app, Kaufman said. Portal will not include any ads at launch, either.

In case you don’t trust Facebook’s camera or microphones, you can switch them off manually on the device. When switched off, the microphone won’t pick up any Alexa or Portal requests. Portal also has a built-in cover for the camera — Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg uses one for his laptop.

Facebook’s new Portal in-home video device
Facebook’s new Portal in-home video device
Facebook

Who is going to use this?

Assuming people make peace with the idea of inviting Facebook into their home, who is actually going to buy a video-chat screen from a company that has no experience in the field?

“We started thinking there’s an obvious [audience], kind of like young professionals with young families and then their grandparents and all that,” said Camargo. That is evident through some of Portal’s features, including a Storytime feature that lets users read a children’s story off a teleprompter during a video call. Facebook will add graphics around the reader’s face, and even face-distorting masks to make the story more compelling to kids on the other end of the call.

But Camargo says that after testing the product — Portal is in about 1,000 homes so far — he feels the product could have broader appeal.

“Almost every person nowadays has someone they’re emotionally very close to or want to be very emotionally close to but that distance has become a factor that is actually eroding that relationship,” he added.

In other words, Portal is for everybody!

The reality, of course, is that an in-home video screen dedicated primarily to video calls seems more like a luxury than a must-have. The Alexa integration helps, and yes, Portal can serve as a speaker. But there are cheaper ways to get Alexa or speakers into your living room or kitchen. Plus, many people already own a video chat device. It’s called a smartphone. Or an iPad.

Amazon has offered an Alexa-powered video chat device for a while, called the Echo Show. As we were writing this post, it was ranked No. 69 on Amazon’s list of the most popular electronics products. Not exactly a top seller.

We’ll wait to see more in-depth reviews, but on concept alone, it’s hard to see this as a runaway hit. Still, it’s easy to see why Facebook would want to try a market like this.

Facebook + Amazon

Facebook is launching Portal with Amazon’s Alexa voice assistant built in. That’s not a shock — it seems less likely Facebook would work with its longtime rival Google, and Apple doesn’t license Siri — but it’s somewhat surprising that Facebook, which has a large team working on AI products, didn’t build out its own voice assistant.

“We looked at [our own assistant], and really our vision is that...the assistant is not the platform,” Camargo said. “We see a world where you will have multiple assistants, and each one of them will be good and you will use them for different things.”

Alexa is the only assistant on Portal at launch, though it’s possible for Facebook to add other assistants down the line. The company declined to comment on details of the arrangement with Amazon, but did confirm that their arrangement is not exclusive.