Reviews of the Portal devices were middling to poor, and due to Facebook’s soiled reputation leaned toward the suspicious. The devices do not appear to have been popular; the social network doesn’t rank in eMarketer’s latest rundown of the most popular brands of smart speaker. But Facebook is not giving up.
Wednesday Facebook announced three new Portal models, at more competitive prices than the first generation. They start at $129. Two reprise the screen-with-camera-and-microphone design that Orwell christened the telescreen but is today called a smart display. The third new model lacks a display, but can turn a TV into a giant videochat screen.
Facebook says these new devices come with improved technology to track the body movements of people during calls. Portal’s main feature when it first launched was person-tracking artificial intelligence that crops the video to keep everyone around the device in the frame, and can follow a specific person. Facebook executives say this AI technology is now more accurate, thanks to new tricks like using the color of a person’s clothes to distinguish them from others. They also say the device’s ability to track people’s body’s could one day be used to add interactive features, such as new videogames.
As before, all Portals have Amazon’s virtual assistant Alexa built in. But Facebook has made other changes that give the device a shot at broader popularity, such as adding support for the world’s largest messaging platform, WhatsApp, which has 1.5 billion users and encrypts calls end-to-end. Portal also will be available outside North America for the first time, in the UK, Spain, France, Italy, Australia, and New Zealand—a list that includes places where WhatsApp is significantly more popular than in the US.
Portal’s person-tracking algorithms, courtesy of Facebook’s AI researchers, are also used for filters that can enliven video calls by giving someone fuzzy ears or oversized spectacles. They also power an odd feature called Story Book that merges a caller’s face into the illustrations from a children’s book as they read along.
Under the hood, those algorithms monitor the pose of a person’s entire body by following the movement of body parts such as limbs and heads. Andrew Bosworth, who leads the division that produces Portal and Facebook’s virtual reality gear, says that means Portal could gain more elaborate augmented reality features in the future. “Interactive games could be a great way to do things,” he says. “There are tons of ways that you could imagine that becoming an experience that two people could share.”
Bosworth acknowledges that Portal launched at an awkward time last year given Facebook’s controversies, but says people are now more comfortable with the idea of cohabiting with internet-connected cameras. He describes Portal, a device designed for personal and even encrypted calls, as a good fit with CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s plan to steer Facebook onto a more privacy-protecting path.
All the AI processing used to track the pose of people using a Portal takes place on the device, not by sending data to Facebook. The devices have switches to cover their cameras and deactivate their microphones.
Google’s own smart display devices demonstrate how tech companies appear to believe that privacy norms for home devices are changing fast. The company did not put a camera into its first such product, launched last year, saying it wasn’t appropriate for private spaces. A new version announced by Google this week not only has a camera but can use facial recognition to recognize different people in a household. Amazon’s equivalent Echo Show devices have cameras, but do not offer facial recognition.