Alexa, meet Portal.
Facebook just launched its first hardware product called Portal, and it’s an Alexa-meets-Google Home-meets-Apple HomePod breed of device. The tablet is Facebook’s play at entering the home assistant market, and is designed to “make you feel like you’re in the same room as friends—even when you’re miles apart.”
Portal is basically just a tablet with a good speaker and a very good camera. To activate it you say, “Hey Portal” (it has Amazon Alexa built-in). The gadget comes in two forms—a 10-inch screen that looks like an Echo Show ($199) and Portal + ($349), a pivoting 15-inch tablet that’s affixed to a stand. Both have a wide-angle camera lens that use AI to automatically follow the action (meaning: you can move around, grab a glass of wine, cook dinner and the camera will follow you, zooming and panning to keep you in the frame).
In theory that’s handy. But do we really need another smart speaker or tablet in 2018? And do we need one from a company that has played fast and loose with its users’ private information? Probably not. Facebook says it’s keeping privacy top of mind with a built-in camera cover and a one-tap interaction to disable the microphone and camera designed to proactively assuage people’s fears. Still, it’s a curious time to be launching the product.
You can’t blame Facebook for trying, though. Reportedly, 1 billion people use the Facebook Messenger app, so even if a tiny fraction of them bite, we’ll be seeing Portals showing up in living rooms, kitchens, and bedrooms around the world.