Despite a survey from Pew Research, which claimed one in four (26 per cent) Americans have deleted the Facebook app from their phone, Facebook thinks you want a new way to use its services, particularly video calling.
So, it introduced Facebook Portal and Portal+, two versions of a video communication device designed to make it easier for you to connect with friends and family.
Now the company has expanded that line-up with the addition of new devices that include a smaller Portal Mini and Portal TV – a device that converts any TV into a giant video calling screen.
What is Facebook Portal?
Facebook Portal is a video communication device from Facebook. With the exception of Facebook TV, these devices are smart displays similar to the Amazon Echo Show. These are devices that are styled to look like digital photo frames and to sit nicely in your home as a beautiful and intelligent display until the time comes to place or receive a call.
The focus of these devices is very much on video calling and “putting people at the centre”. Facebook hopes the Portal range of smart displays will help connect more people in your life more easily.
There are now four different models of Facebook Portal: Facebook Portal Mini, Portal, Portal+ and Portal TV. They each have different designs aesthetics, but they’re both focused on video chatting and meant to make it feel like you’re in the same room with the person on the other end of the call.
How does Facebook Portal work?
Here are some of Facebook Portal’s core features:
Smart Camera and Smart Sound
All the Facebook Portal devices feature AI-powered “Smart Camera and Smart Sound” technology. This tech allows the cameras to recognise people and then follow them around the room and automatically pan and zoom while also minimising background noise and enhancing the voice of whoever is calling.
With a wide-angle lens built-in, this also means that the Portal devices can pick-up multiple people in the room and track them as they move about. We’ve seen this in action with Portal TV and Portal+ and it’s very impressive. The company says it worked closely with professional cinematographers to ensure the panning and tracking is smooth and not too fast or jarring.
Facebook said it’s like “having your own cinematographer and sound crew direct your personal video calls”.
It’s also designed to only recognise people and not follow pets, so the call won’t be interrupted by a dog or cat wandering into the room. But the company was quick to point out that the cameras only recognise humans in the room, not specific people. No data on who is on the call is sent to Facebook in any way.
These calls can also be placed via Facebook Messenger or WhatsApp, so end-to-end encryption is an option.
Facebook Portal is also built with intelligent microphone tech that includes beamforming to track the people talking and reduce environmental and background noise on the call. This includes as many as eight microphones on Facebook Portal TV, meaning you can easily chat with an entire family when placing a video call on these devices.
Facebook Messenger and WhatsApp
You can use either Facebook Portal to call your Facebook friends and connections on Messenger – even if they don’t have a Portal. Calls can be made to and from Messenger-enabled phones and tablets, and Portal supports group calls of up to seven people at the same time. When you’re not on a call, Portal can display your photos and videos, when your contacts are available to connect, birthday reminders, etc.
Facebook announced at F8 that it was planning on rolling WhatsApp calling to Portal devices. That’s now becoming a reality too, giving you the ability to place video calls with more people, wherever they are in the world.
Alexa and voice control
Facebook Portal devices come with Amazon Alexa support as standard. The company says anything that works on Alexa will work here too and you will have the ability to watch videos, place calls and more with voice commands.
In the US and Canda, you can start a video call by saying “Hey Portal” and then say who you’d like to call. And because Portal also has built-in Amazon Alexa, you can ask it to check the weather, control smart home devices, order groceries, and more. For more about how Alexa works, and for a list of things you can do with it, go here.
Facebook is also working on its own voice assistant to run on Portal devices and will be constantly striving to improve that.
AR effects and Story Time
Facebook has incorporated augmented reality effects powered by its Spark platform. The point is to make calls fun and interactive. From what we can tell, this feature will be like Snapchat lenses in that you can apply AR stickers to your face and environment to augment how they appear.
A new Story Time experience is even designed to “bring stories to life with custom sound effects and visuals”.
This uses the Smart Camera on the Portal device to help you read a story via a simple teleprompter, and that it will be perfectly framed and animated with AR effects, so that your “loved ones on the other side watch as your face and voice transform into the story’s characters”. We’ve seen this in action and it’s actually quite a cool way to read stories to your kids while you’re away from home or have grandparents get involved in bedtime from afar.
15 stories are available with Story Time at the moment, with more promised in future.
Apps and integrations
Like most smart home devices, Facebook Portal smart devices also have a handful of apps and integrations. Facebook partnered with Spotify Premium, Pandora, iHeartRadio, Food Network, and Newsy – and it promised to add more soon. It also has Facebook Watch that can be used to watch your videos and videos from Facebook with other people on the call.
As it works with Amazon Alexa, there’s also said to be some support for Amazon Prime Video too.
What’s the difference?
Portal devices come in a number of different sizes. The smallest of which is Portal Mini which has a 8-inch display, Portal has a 10-inch, while Portal+ boasts a 15.6-inch 1080p. Portal TV stands out from the rest as being a device that resembles a webcam or other smart camera device you might add on top of your PC.
All the Portal devices have speakers built into them. These devices have tweeters, rear-mounted drivers and a design that delivers surprisingly big sound for such a small screened device.
Each also has a camera capable of capturing 720p footage for video calls as well as multiple microphones for minimising background noise and focussing on the talker. There’s also dual-band Wi-Fi and Bluetooth 4.2 connectivity.
Touchscreens, voice-activated commands and more make Portal user-friendly and easy to use.
Portal TV comes with a remote control to use to adjust settings, accept and place calls as well as clever technology to turn your TV into a giant video-calling display.
Is Facebook Portal safe?
No internet-connected device is safe from a hack or breach, though Facebook is keen to state that all Portal devices are “private by design”.
You can completely disable the camera and microphone with by simply pressing a button. There’s a switch on the Portal frames that allows you to either turn off the camera, microphone or both depending on your requirement. There’s a physical camera cover that can be slid out using this button that blocks the camera off, but the hardware also includes a physical switch that disables the microphones too. So even if they’re hacked, they cannot record audio if this switch is on.
Plus, to manage Portal access within your home, you can set a four- to 12-digit passcode to keep the screen locked.
Facebook also promised that it won’t listen to, view, or keep the contents of your Portal video calls, and that video calls are encrypted. What’s more, the Smart Camera and Smart Sound’s AI technology runs locally on Portal, not on Facebook servers. Portal’s camera also doesn’t use facial recognition, and you can delete your Portal’s voice history in your Facebook Activity Log at any time.
Despite the news that Facebook staff have listened to Messenger clips, Facebook is keen to point out that you can opt-out of data collection and adjust privacy settings if you don’t want your data recorded.
How much does Facebook Portal cost?
Portal is now available to pre-order in the US, Canada and Europe with the Portal and Portal Mini set to start shipping 15 October and Portal TV 5 November.
Portal Mini is £129/$129, Portal is £169/$179 and Portal TV is £149/$149. You can also buy any two Portal devices and get £50/$50 off. Find out more here.
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