Given the various questions around how Facebook has tracked and utilized the personal information of its users in the past, the company's Portal smart speaker device was always going to be a hard sell in the current market.
"Add a Facebook camera into my home, where it has the capacity to record my private life and conversations? Sure, sounds great."
Likely reflective of this, Portal sales, thus far, haven't been great, but the device could still end up playing a significant role in Facebook's growth plans, if it's able to provide more functionality. Essentially, to make Portal a success, Facebook needs to make Portal's features so compelling that people are willing to ignore the potential privacy concerns.
On that point, this week, Facebook has announced a collection of new features for its Portal devices, including interactive elements, and improved app connectivity, which may make it a more attractive option to consider.
First off, Facebook's adding more stories for its interactive 'Story Time' feature which it first announced back in September. Portal's Story Time mode enables users to share kids stories via Portal video calls, complete with AR features to enhance the experience.
As per Facebook:
"Story Time lets you bring children’s stories to life with augmented reality effects that change your appearance to match the characters. We’re adding new renditions of classic stories, Little Red Riding Hood and Goldilocks and the Three Bears, plus new tales from Llama Llama, Pete the Cat and Otto."
And that's not the only new interactive tool - Facebook's also adding 'Mic Drop', a lip-synching option which will enable you to perform popular song clips "on an AR stage during a call", and will come with Stories-style AR masks to "transform you into various music genre characters from a punk rocker or hippie to an ’80s rock star".
Facebook's also adding a new Photo Booth option for Portal TV:
"...so you can snap selfies and take videos, add effects and then share with people on Messenger from your TV."
Facebook will be hoping that these new, fun elements will enhance the Portal calling experience, and get people sharing about the same online. That could help boost interest in the tool, while the focus on fun again seeks to temper concerns around potential privacy issues.
In addition to this, Facebook's also adding a new integration with Facebook Live:
"Starting today, you can livestream from Portal directly to your Facebook profile via Facebook Live, which is a great way to share important moments like birthdays and anniversaries with your loved ones across the country or around the globe. Open the Facebook Live app and let Smart Camera be the cinematographer for your special events."
That could make it an appealing prospect for those who regularly use Facebook's streaming option, and again, it'll add to the functionality of the tool, broadening the possibilities.
Facebook's also adding the ability to log into Portal via your WhatsApp account, and new connection with Facebook Workplace, which will facilitate easy video calling and chat.
And Facebook's announced a new set of partners for Portal TV, expanding your viewing options through the app:
"We’re adding access to thousands of shows and movies through new streaming partners on Portal TV, including Amazon Prime Video in the US, UK, Canada and France along with FandangoNOW and Sling TV, which were recently added in the US. Portal TV owners can now also stream music, podcasts and audio shows from Deezer, plus music from Crave in Canada and video from France Télévisions in France."
Will these additions be enough to get people more interested in the device? It's hard to say - definitely, the Portal offering is improving, and these new options, while relatively small in isolation, will facilitate a range of new use cases. That could get more people with specific interests on board - but the bigger push from Facebook seems to be about getting users to talk about their Portal experiences online, and build more hype for the app.
The most significant update for Portal this year has been the option to connect the device to your home TV screen, which, if Facebook can improve its Facebook Watch offering, could end up being a major positive step. Netflix says that 70% of its streams end up on connected TVs, as opposed to on phones, tablets or PCs, while YouTube has also reported that connected TVs are its fastest-growing segment. The capacity to connect video content through to your home TV set is significant, and that's still where Facebook is likely to gain the most traction with its Portal device.
These new tweaks and updates definitely add to the option, but expect to see Facebook make connected TVs a bigger focus in 2020 as it looks to generate more interest in its hardware option.