A Better Way to Video Chat

Can Facebook Kill FaceTime? Its First Smart Speakers Want To


October 8, 2018 Tech By Photo by Brenden Clarke and Facebook
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Facebook has been working on non-Oculus hardware projects for some time and today we got to find out exactly what one of those was. Meet Portal ($199) and Portal+ ($349). They’re smart speakers with a screen that aim to change the way people video chat from home. Despite their similar concept, they differ from Amazon’s Echo Show ($229) of Lenovo’s Smart Display ($200+) for a couple of big reasons.

First, Portal and Portal+ leverage Facebook’s popular Messenger app. Second, they feature really nice cameras that can track multiple subjects simultaneously, and automatically pan around the room or zoom-in on people’s faces. And three, these cameras are capable of some pretty impressive AI technology, enabling them to make video calls more interactive. Additionally, Portal and Portal+ have Alexa built-in, so you can ask Portal about the weather, play Spotify tracks or control your smart home devices just like you would with an Amazon Echo.

But that just covers the basics. Here’s what else you need to know about Portal and Portal+.

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Portal and Portal+: What’s the Difference?

The only differences between the two are on the hardware side, as they work the same exact way. The Portal has a smaller and lower-res display (10-inch, 720p) than the Portal+’s display (15-inch, 1080p). The Portal+’s display alsos, meaning can flip it around so it rests horizontally or vertically. The Portal+ also has a more powerful speaker.

Note: For clarity, we refer to both Portal and Portal+ simply as “Portal” for most of this article because they work the exact same way.

It’s like FaceTime, But Better. Way Better.

You’ve already been able to video call friends through the Messenger app (smartphone to smartphone), but with Portal, you get a much more hands-free experience. Not only can you video call somebody and not have to hold your phone right in front of your face, but Portal’s smart camera can lock onto that person’s face and track them as they walk around the room (so long as they stay in frame). And the camera will zoom in that person so you can better see their face.

If there are multiple people in the frame, Portal can automatically pan and zoom to fit everybody in the frame. If you just want Portal to focus on one person in a group, you can select that specific person and Portal will zoom in and track them. Say you’re calling your brother and his four-year-old son is playing in the background – you can have Portal lock-in onto your nephew, pay attention to his cuteness and still talk and see your brother. Both devices also feature some smart sound technology to minimize background noise and enhance the voice of whoever is talking, even if they are moving around. Facebook hopes that it’ll make video calls feel “less like a call, and more like you’re actually in the same room.”

Portal is really optimized for calling other people who have a Portal. The framing features (i.e. automatically panning and zooming) are only available on the Portal hardware, so it’s a bit inversed: call someone’s phone from your Portal and only they will experience this smart framing feature. It’s just going to feel like a regular video call for you. (Fortunately, Facebook is offering a number of bundle deals for people who want to buy two or more Portals.)

It’s also worth noting that Portal can group video calls that support up to seven people at the same time. In one of these group calls, each individual video caller is separated in a separate window and you can pick which one you want to take up most of the Portal’s screen. In each of these windows, you can track a different individual, too.

The Portal+

How Do They Work? (“Hey Portal”)

As mentioned before, Portal and Portal+ rely on Facebook’s Messenger app to video call. If you have the app on your smartphone or tablet, you can be “active” even when you’re out of the house, and other people on Messenger can see that you’re active and choose to call or message you. Portal connects to your home’s wi-fi and will be able to detect when you are or are not home. When home, there will be an instant handoff between your smartphone and Portal, so you don’t have to do any setup. If you’re home, Portal will automatically detect that you’re active and a “green dot” next to your name on Messenger will alert others that you’re online and available to be video called. (you can obviously disable this or turn off if you don’t want to be active when you get home.) The other neat thing with this smartphone-to-Portal handoff is that if you’re on a Messenger video call with somebody on your smartphone, when you arrive home, Portal can take over that call without dropping it, allowing you to continue the call while also being able to put down your phone. Again, it’s nice.

There are two ways to communicate with your Portal. It has Amazon’s Alexa voice assistant built in, so you can ask Alexa to play music or control your smart home and music control or pull off other standard Alexa-enabled tasks (i.e. ask for sports scores, check the weather, order groceries). But to video call somebody, which is Portal’s bread and butter, all you have to do is say “Hey Portal” followed back who you’d like to call. It’s actually nice to see that Facebook is compromising here, allowing “Portal” to handle its one task (which it hopefully master) while leaving Alexa to do what it’s already pretty good at.

They Aren’t Pet or Security Cameras

Facebook has placed a strong emphasis on privacy and security with the Portal and Portal+, and with that comes some limitations. They are not smart security cameras or pet monitors. Even though they have a camera and can detect motion, they can’t send motion alerts and you cannot log into an app to get a live stream of what your dog is doing. Facebook says that everything on the Portal is locally stored and video calls are encrypted, so nobody can remotely hack into it and listen to your conversations. Portal doesn’t record or listen to your video Portal video calls, either. You won’t talk about possibly buying a pair of shoes and then see an advertisement those exact same shoes the next time you log into Facebook.

Play Games, Listen to Music or Watch Shows With People

Portal is mainly for video calling and, more specifically, it’s for making video calls feel more personal. There’s an augmented reality element to Portal, too. Thanks to its smart camera and Facebook’s Spark AR platform, Portal can make video calls more fun and interactive. There are only a few interactive games and features at launch, but Facebook will be sure to add to those options in time. There’s a “Story Time” feature where while on a video call you can read a children’s story via a teleprompter. With each page, a custom sound effect or visual (like a face filter) will appear to help bring the story to life. Then there’s “Superframe” which effectively turns Portal into a smart picture frame when it’s not being used for video calls.

Another cool feature is that Portal lets you share experiences and activities with other people. You can listen to music together or watch shows at the same time with other people who have Portals. At launch, Facebooks has partnered with Spotify Premium, Pandora and iHeartRadio for music. For shows, it’s partnered with Facebook Watch, Food Network and Newsy. Again, you can expect more partners to come.

Who Should Buy Portal?

I think that Facebook knows that Portal and Portal+ won’t be for everybody. Both devices are niche and fairly expensive, especially when you consider that most people already have a smart speaker, and they are already FaceTime with their friends and family using their smartphone. To that end, Portal seems like a device primed for young parents who travel a lot and who want to interact with their kids when they’re away. Grandparents who want to interact with their young grandchildren and don’t want to hold a smartphone for long periods of time also seems like good candidates. From a business perspective, Portal seems ideal for conference calls and presentations, although many of these advanced capabilities (such as presentation sharing/mirroring) aren’t exactly clear.

That said, for the majority of people, these devices are trying to get you to put down your iPhone and use Portal instead of FaceTime – and that seems like a tall ask. It might be worth waiting to see what other advanced features Facebook rolls out via software updates before pulling the purchase trigger.

When Can You Buy?

With the announcement of its first real hardware products (not including Oculus), Facebook also launched an e-commerce site different from Facebook Marketplace. It’s called Portal (again) and you can access it here: portal.facebook.com. Portal and Portal+ are available now for pre-order and will begin shipping in November. You can also purchase from Amazon and Best Buy. If you order any two devices – Portal ($199) and Portal+ ($349) – you’ll get $100 off.

Key Specs

Portal
Display: 10.1-inch
Resolution: 720p
Audio: 10-watt speakers, 4-mic array
Camera: 12-megapixel (140-degrees field of view)
Weight: 2.7 pounds

Portal+
Display: 15.6-inch
Resolution: 1080p
Audio: 20-watt speakers, 4-mic array
Camera: 12-megapixel (140-degrees field of view)
Weight: 7.4 pounds

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