Almost a year after its initial launch, Facebook is rolling out three new versions of its Portal video calling device, including one which connects to your home TV set, which could be a major step for the device itself, and for Facebook's broader video ambitions.
The TV connected device - which you can see at the front in the image above - clips onto the top of your home TV set, enabling you to make the largest screen in your home a digitally connected platform, both for video calling and video streaming.
The device aligns with Facebook's long-standing view for video connectivity - back in 2016, Facebook submitted a patent for a dongle which would facilitate direct connection between your mobile device and your home TV screen.
The idea of that device was to connect Facebook to your home TV, so you could comment on, say, the latest reality TV episode, and have it appear overlaid on your TV screen, aligning with second-screening trends. That specific device never eventuated, but this new version of Portal is a step in that direction.
It won't give you full Facebook functionality on your TV screen as yet, but it will give you video calling, the capacity to watch video content with friends, while connected via Facebook, and the ability to stream content from selected partners - including, of course, Facebook Watch.
That could provide a big boost for Facebook's broader video ambitions, getting more Facebook Watch content onto home TV devices. While mobile video consumption is on the rise, the TV set remains a central entertainment option, with our homes built around it being the communal viewing device. Case in point - YouTube this week reported that TV screens are its fastest-growing device, with daily connected TV watch time now topping 250 million hours.
If you want to succeed in video, you need to facilitate direct TV streaming. Facebook first started testing this last October, and the release of this new option is a significant step.
But video calling is, at least at this stage, the main focus here. On this front, Facebook has also improved its options, including its AI-powered Smart Camera which "intelligently pans and zooms to stay with the action so you can move and talk freely while always being in frame", as well as Smart Sound, which looks to enhance the voice of whoever's speaking, while minimizing unwanted background noise.
Facebook's also rolling out a new feature called 'Story Time':
"Story Time on Portal brings stories to life with animation, music and AR effects. Earlier this year we announced three new, award-winning children’s book series coming to Story Time: Llama Llama, Pete the Cat and Otto. These new stories are available now."
In addition, Facebook's also bringing WhatsApp video calling to Portal, along with Messenger calls, which, Facebook also notes, will be end-to-end encrypted.
And that last element points to the next key area of concern for Portal. While the device itself seems solid, seems functional, and there's a lot ot like about the latest Portal updates, what seems to be holding the device back from becoming a more significant consideration is privacy, and Facebook's various data security and misuse issues.
Given Facebook's questionable track record on using your personal data, even selling it to third parties (indirectly), do you really want to bring a Facebook-connected video camera into your home?
That concern has been exacerbated by reports that Facebook has, indeed, been taking audio recordings from Portal devices and using them for internal analysis.
As per Bloomberg:
"Facebook confirmed Wednesday that it was collecting audio from Portal users who make a request from the device using the command “Hey Portal.” By default, those commands were recorded and stored on Facebook servers, and some of them were transcribed by contractors working with the company to improve the software algorithms used to understand the commands."
Initially, Facebook had been vague about where its audio recordings were coming from, but they are coming from Portal, meaning that Facebook does have the capacity to record audio through the device and retain it. And given the long-standing myth that Facebook is already recording things you say in your everyday conversations, you can see how this may add to consumer concerns, and make people a little hesitant to go pick up what's essentially a Facebook walkie-talkie for their private, in-home interactions.
Facebook has sought to alleviate these concerns by reiterating the privacy features of Portal. Each version of the device comes with a cover that slides over the camera, and there are indicator lights which show when it's recording. Facebook also notes that its Smart Camera and Smart Sound tools utilize AI technology "that runs locally on Portal, not on Facebook servers".
And while Facebook does use user audio recordings for internal system training, it also notes that people can listen to their recordings and remove them at any time.
"You can view, hear and delete any of your “Hey Portal” voice interactions in your Facebook Activity Log. You can also turn off voice storage in Settings anytime, which means that your voice interactions are not stored or reviewed."
Indeed, privacy is a key focus, even within the product specs for the new devices:
Will that be enough? Will the outlined privacy measures provide enough assurance to get more consumers to bring a Facebook-connected device into their homes?
While Facebook hasn't released any official numbers on Portal sales thus far, as reported by Marketing Land, in examining Facebook's Q1 '19 numbers, Portal sales appear to have been fairly flat to this point. Facebook's overall hardware sales in Q1 were down 4% on the previous year - and while those are overall hardware sales, and not Portal-specific, given that the stats came from the first quarter after Portal's launch, a decline isn't exactly an inspiring signal.
But really, what probably matters most here is functionality. Facebook itself is under a cloud for its continual data security issues, yet it has more than 2.4 billion active users, a number that's continued to grow despite ongoing concerns.
Why is that? Because Facebook has become an essential connector, because the platform plays a key role in keeping people up to date and aware of the happenings in the lives of their friends and family. Yes, there are privacy issues, but the functional benefits outweigh them. Evidently, people are willing to overlook such in favor of utility.
Can Facebook pull of that same trick with Portal?
Definitely, these new upgrades and variations are a big step, and the TV-connected option, in particular, offers a lot of practical, functional value. If Facebook can show people just how much, just how valuable and entertaining and interesting these new tools can be, you can bet that more users will come on board, despite the privacy issues.
Also, as if to soften users up even further, they've even used The Muppets in their latest ad:
The Muppets wouldn't steal your data right? They wouldn't record your private, intimate conversations and store them on Facebook's servers for questionable purpose.
Facebook still has a way to go to win people over, but I would suggest that it is on the right track.
Facebook's new Portal devices are now available for pre-order in the US, Canada, while Facebook is also bringing Portal to the UK, France, Italy, Spain, Australia and New Zealand. Portal and Portal Mini begin shipping from October 15th and Portal TV begins shipping November 5th.