Facebook’s New Gadget Is a Video-Chat Screen With a Camera That Follows You


SAN FRANCISCO — Since 2004, Fb has stated it needs to deliver the world nearer collectively. To perform that aim, the corporate has relied principally on the internet and smartphone apps.

However software program is not sufficient. On Monday, Fb launched a pair of video-calling gadgets — Portal and Portal Plus — to assist develop its attain into folks’s residing rooms.

Portal and Portal Plus, which have a 12-megapixel digicam with high-definition video and synthetic intelligence software program, can be utilized to do video chats. The A.I.-powered digicam follows customers as they transfer, letting them converse with out sitting stiffly. The gadgets additionally embrace Amazon’s Alexa, which individuals can command to play music or verify the climate.

Portal, which has a 10-inch display, will promote for $199, whereas the opposite mannequin, with a 15-inch show that may be rotated, might be priced at $349. Fb plans to supply the devices on a stand-alone web site in time for the vacations, and has a significant advertising marketing campaign within the works.

The gadgets are Fb’s first main foray into designing, constructing and promoting shopper hardware from scratch. If the Portals are profitable, the corporate may encourage extra folks to make use of its social community frequently to communicate with family and friends, in addition to for apps like Spotify and Pandora.

But Fb’s timing couldn’t be worse. After two years of scandals, it will likely be advertising Portal and Portal Plus to a skeptical public. Final month, the corporate additionally announced a security breach that put the accounts of at least 50 million users at risk, while endangering the accounts of numerous third-party apps.

To address privacy concerns with Portal and Portal Plus, Facebook said the products include an electronic kill switch for the front-facing camera, as well as a cover for the lens. In addition, video calls are encrypted, and the camera’s A.I. technology runs on the device itself, not on Facebook’s servers, the company said.

The company said the utility of the devices, which work on a household Wi-Fi connection, would convince people of their importance in a home. The devices are built atop Facebook’s Messenger platform, and the communication software is hooked into a user’s web of Facebook connections. Once Portal is connected to a Messenger account, people can video chat with anyone in their network across devices, be it on Portal, a tablet, a smartphone or a desktop computer.

Facebook is entering a fiercely competitive market. Voice-controlled smart speakers, a category birthed by Amazon in 2015 with its Echo, is small but growing. Last quarter, manufacturers shipped 16.8 million smart speakers, up 187 percent from the same period last year, according to the research firm Canalys. Amazon and Google dominate the smart speaker market in the United States. In China, Alibaba and Xiaomi are quickly gaining traction with sales of their artificially intelligent speakers.

In the last two years, smart speakers have evolved to include screens for videoconferencing, videos and apps. Amazon last year unveiled Echo Show, its first Echo with a display, and Lenovo teamed up with Google this year on a smart screen featuring Google’s Assistant. Google is also expected to release its own smart screen this year.

Instead of building its own virtual assistant three years after Alexa’s debut, Facebook worked with Amazon. Like other Amazon-powered products, Portal can be controlled by speaking the word “Alexa” before a question or a request, like “What’s the weather in San Francisco?” or “Set a timer for 10 minutes.”

Jonathan Collins, a research director for ABI Research, said it was wise for Facebook to collaborate with Amazon. While creating a digital assistant has helped Apple, Google and Amazon make their products look more attractive, there was no clear benefit for Facebook to making one of its own, he said.

“It’s not an obvious link to what they do for people at present,” which is to deepen people’s relationships, Mr. Collins said.

Facebook had worked on hardware previously, though its involvement with Portal goes much deeper and further. In 2013, the company and the manufacturer HTC produced the HTC First, a smartphone that ran on a new Facebook-based operating system. The phone flopped.

The company also sells virtual-reality goggles, which it got into when the start-up Oculus was already building those products. Facebook acquired Oculus in 2014.

Rafa Camargo, Facebook’s vice president who oversees Portal, said that when his team said it wanted to work on a smart home product with a large screen, his peers reacted in disbelief — especially since Amazon and Apple were focused on speakers and not video.

“Everyone was like: ‘You’re nuts. T he whole thing is just about smart speakers and just voice,’” said Mr. Camargo, who joined Facebook about two years ago.

But he said that voice was just one feature of the product and that Facebook could offer customers a different type of experience.

“We come from focusing on people,” he said.

Follow Mike Isaac and Brian X. Chen on Twitter: @MikeIsaac and @bxchen.

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