Creepy or convenient? Facebook’s new Portal smart display follows you around the room

Facebook's Alexa-enabled video-calling devices begin shipping

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Are you ready for a screened smart speaker from Facebook? Now’s the time to buy.

The social media giant announced on Thursday, November 7, that theFacebook brand Portal and Portal+ video-calling devices introduced last month are now shipping.

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.

“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 1200 x 800 display, while the $349 Portal+ boasts a whopping 15-inch 1920 x 1080 pivoting display. Both models have artificial intelligence-enabled features Facebook calls Smart Camera and Smart Sound.

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.

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.

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 other sources are on the way, Facebook says.

Additional newly 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. 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.

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

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’s 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 November 8, 2018: Both models are now for sale and added additional information about the Smart Camera function. 

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