Facebook’s Portal video-calling smart display ramps up content, supports nicknames

Facebook Portal and Portal+ video-calling devices gain new content and features

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Are you ready for a screened smart speaker from Facebook? Facebook keeps adding content and feature so now’s the time to buy.

The social media giant started shipping the Facebook brand Portal and Portal+ video-calling devices on November 7. Move the calendar ahead five weeks and Friday, December 14, Facebook is adding significant value to the clever displays. Facebook says it will continue to roll out new features and content in the coming months.

The Portal and Portal+ are hands-free devices with cameras and microphones for video calls to Facebook friends. Both models are also Amazon Alexa smart speakers with video displays. As you might have guessed, a Facebook account is required to make Facebook video calls. You can read about our experience with the Portal+ in our full review.

“Both models are designed to make you feel closer to the important people in your life, and make video chats seem less like a call and more like you’re actually in the same room,” Facebook said in a statement.

The two models, offered in white or black, differ primarily in display size and resolution. The $199 Portal has a 10-inch 1,200 x 800 display, while the $349 Portal+ boasts a whopping 15-inch 1,920 x 1,080 pivoting display. Both models have artificial intelligence-enabled features Facebook calls Smart Camera and Smart Sound. You can use a new Spotlight feature

Smart Camera’s 12-megapixel camera has a 140-degree field of view. The camera automatically pans and zooms on calls to follow the action and keep everyone on the call in the frame, including new people who join the call. Smart Sound’s artificial intelligence magic works in conjunction with Smart Camera. As a speaker moves around a room, for example, the camera follows the movement and the microphones automatically enhance the speaker’s voice.

New modes and features

On December 14, Facebook rolled out a feature called Manual Mode for Smart Camera. Instead of allowing the camera to follow movement independently, you can select one person with a new Spotlight feature and manually customize the focus with pinch and zoom gestures.

With each device, you initiate calls to Facebook friends by voice by saying “Hey, Portal.” The portals can be used to communicate with friends who don’t have a Portal via Facebook’s Messenger apps. Call recipients who have both can decide whether to accept a video call on their Portal or Messenger app and can transfer calls in progress between the two.

With Nickname Calling, now you can call family members by their relationship to you, as identified in your Facebook profile. So, now you can say, “Hey Portal, call my fiancée” or “Hey Portal, call my father.” There’s no way yet to identify friends with nicknames, but we won’t be surprised to see it sometime in the future.

The built-in Amazon Alexa functionality means that you can use the device to do everything you can with an Echo speaker, like set kitchen timers and control smart home compatible devices.

Facebook partnered with Spotify Premium, Pandora, and iHeartRadio streaming audio services and Facebook Watch, Food Network, and Newsy video providers for customers to use with the Portal and Portal+. CNN and ABC News are now ready to give you the news, Facebook says.

Portal users can also watch YouTube videos, follow cooking recipes on AllRecipes.com, and stream ESPN’s Monday Night Football.

Ad-free Facebook Instant Games now available include BattleshipDisney Tsum Tsum, Draw Something, Shake It Up-Poker Dice, Sudoku, SuperBaseball, and Words With Friends.

Additional new functions for the video-calling devices include Story Time, which uses augmented reality to transform your face and voice into story characters when it plays bedtime stories. Two new interactive holiday stories, Cold Snap and Professor Right, are ready for bedtime amusement.

With Superframe, you can use the devices to display photos and videos, show birthday reminders, and let you know when your closest Facebook friends are available for a Facebook video call. New augmented reality features including North Pole Knits Elf, Spa Day, and Tropical Lut can add a helping of silliness to your video calls.

The devices don’t monitor or keep the contents of video calls, which are encrypted to ensure security.

Privacy on lock

Clearly cognizant of ongoing privacy concerns, Facebook says its built-in features intended to assure users that they are in charge.

You can disable the camera and microphone with a single tap. There is a camera lens cover that prevents you from receiving calls or notifications, and you can protect usage of the devices with four- to 12-digit passcodes. You can only change a Portal’s passcode by using your Facebook password.

Additionally, the devices don’t monitor or keep the contents of video calls, which are encrypted to ensure security. The A.I. technology in Portal cameras and mics doesn’t use facial recognition or try to identify callers. Rather, Portals use 2D Pose, which is Facebook’s “…open source technology that can distinguish a body shape from a chair or couch, for example,” a Facebook spokeswoman told Digital Trends in an e-mail.

Facebook also clarified how it uses information from Portal, including when users switch to Messenger, an issue that Digital Trends expressed concern about.

“Portal is integrated with some of your Messenger and Facebook experiences. When you use Portal, we process the same kinds of information as when you use Facebook products on your other devices. Some of this information, including the fact that you logged into your account or how often you use a feature or app, may be used to inform the ads you see across Facebook.

“While we don’t listen to, view or keep the contents of your Portal video calls, or use this information to target ads, we do process some device usage information to understand how Portal is being used and to improve the product.”

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While Facebook does sell the Oculus Go, developed by Oculus VR, which Facebook acquired in 2015, the Portal devices are the first Facebook-branded hardware products. The devices will compete in a crowded smart display market that includes the Amazon Echo Show, Lenovo Smart Display, and JBL Link View,  although none of those devices are Facebook-centric.

Facebook Portal and Portal+ are available now for sale on Facebook, Amazon, and BestBuy, and at Amazon Books and Best Buy stores nationwide. Facebook is also offering $100 off on purchases of any two portals together, so you can own one and set someone else up with one for $298.

Updated on December 14, 2018: Both models now include new content, video calling features, new AR, and Nickname Calling.

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