Portal is a New Voice Enabled Hands-Free Video Calling Device from Facebook

Facebook unveiled their new Facebook Portal: A hands-free video calling device. Let's take a look.

Have you ever dreamed of calling your friend and family without needing to hold your smartphone for hours on end? Then you might want to consider Facebook's new Portal device

It was announced yesterday to much furor (both positive and negative) and is open to pre-orders right now. 

Billed as a hands-free video calling device if commercially successful it could help Facebook break into the hardware market.

Now you can experience the thrill of long-distance, hands-free conversations without the need to have force powers like Kylo Ren or Rey in Star Wars: The Last Jedi.

Facebook has long resisted entering into the smartphone market. Despite the fact that the platform has been providing a one-stop-shop for your contacts for years. 

Their reluctance is understandable after all this is a heavily saturated market and would put their device in direct competition with giants like Apple and Android phone manufacturers, not to mention Google

With growing issues around Facebook's bottom line, the company has finally decided to take the plunge and build their own hardware.

Previously Facebook bought out Oculus in order to get a foot in the door but yesterday made the announcement about their new venture - The Facebook Portal.

Facebook Portal types
Source: Facebook Portal

What's so special about the Facebook Portal?

Portal is billed as being a "Voice-enabled hands-free video calling" device that will let you "stay and feel connected to the people you love most. Portal feels less like a video call and more like you’re in the same room — even when you’re miles apart."

The basic idea is to have a device that allows you to video call others without needing to hold the device for long periods of time. Facebook believes that this allows for you to feel like you are in the same room with those you are chatting to with some added augmented reality. 

You won't need to hold, aim or direct Portal to do anything, that's all automatic. It will find anyone in view and, using a wide angle lens, keep them in the frame. 

If it's just you on the line it will zoom in to focus on your face, or zoom out for larger groups of people in one room. This, it is believed, will allow for a more natural video chatting experience

Portal is a New Voice Enabled Hands-Free Video Calling Device from Facebook
Source: Facebook Portal

Although this does just sound like a Facebook packaged webcam it is a lot smarter than that.

It effectively integrates with Facebook Messenger to "seamlessly" call friends and family from smartphones or tablets. Video calls can accommodate up to six users at any one time.

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Like a messenger, you can also share music, videos and other files using the device. It also acts as a digital photo frame that displays your Facebook photos and videos when idle using a feature called Superframe.

It will also let you play your favorite music using its "powerful speakers" that are said to provide "your room with rich, hi-fi sound". 

Most of its functions are designed to integrate with your existing Facebook account.

The Portal will let you plonk the device somewhere freeing you up to walk around at your leisure without compromising video-calling quality. The built-in smart camera will automatically adjust to track you as you move around the room. 

Like other voice-activated devices out there it will only activate when commanded and you can delete your activity at any time. Portal comes in two flavors the regular Portal and the supersize Portal+ to suit all budgets and needs.

What security features does it have?

Given recent security issues with Facebook, this will be a top priority for any potential consumer. Facebook says Portal was built with security in mind.

"Portal was created with privacy, safety, and security in mind. And it has clear and simple settings, so you stay in control."

It also has a feature to completely disable the camera and microphone with the tap of a finger or, if you don't trust its efficacy it does also come with a physical camera cap. 

"Facebook doesn’t listen to, view or keep the contents of your Portal video calls. Your Portal conversations stay between you and the people you’re calling," says Facebook

It also comes with an AI technology that only operates locally and not on their servers. The portal also lacks Facial recognition so shouldn't identify any persons present.

Facebook Portal Security
Source: Facebook Portal

Testers of Portal were surprised but its limited functionality beyond its main features. It can play Spotify and Pandora, play videos through Facebook Watch and let you scroll through photos in your Facebook album. It is also able to talk to your Alexa but beyond that, it lacks any other features.

Although this might not be a dealbreaker for some users it does effectively make it, more or less, a single-purpose tool with a price tag of between $200 and $350. However, it would be useful for those how are constantly making video calls thus making the investment potentially viable.

Facebook Portal and Portal+
Source: Facebook Portal

Would you trust Facebook's Portal? 

Given the latest scandals around Facebook's use of your data and security breaches, many might be reluctant to make such a purchase. This device is, after all, an always-on microphone and camera that you are actually paying to have installed in your home.

Consumers' concerns are justified and many on Twitter tend to agree with the sentiment.

 This Twitter user didn't hold back either.

Members of the press also share the general public's concern with writers at the Washington Press and USA Today not pulling any punches.

Whether Facebook will be able to address these very reasonable concerns is yet to be seen but launching this kind of product just after Cambridge Analytica and other recent security scandals might not have been the wisest decision. We will see of course.

Facebook Portal Security Concerns
Source: Anthony Quintano/Flickr