I had a chance to spend a little time with the long-rumored Portal ahead of its launch. As a camera, it offers a nice upgrade to the Skype or FaceTime video chat experience many of us have on a phone or computer. The Portal sits on a shelf or kitchen counter and lets your voice do the dialing. Call out, “Portal, call Geoffrey,” and it’ll ring my home Portal or the Facebook Messenger app on my phone. Facebook’s advantage over other video chat services: Chances are, almost everyone you might want to call already has an account.
It is similar to Smart Display devices from Google and the Echo Show from Amazon, which are also smart speakers with screens to display information or facilitate video calls. In fact, the Portal has a partnership with Amazon and has Alexa’s voice and intelligence built in to take commands, play music, set timers and answer questions. (Amazon CEO and founder Jeffrey P. Bezos also owns The Washington Post.)
What’s unique about Facebook’s device is the tech it uses to make the video calls look good. Think of it as a personal cinematographer: A 12-megapixel camera — equivalent to most phones — identifies the shape of people within its 140-degree field of view and pans and zooms to make sure they’re all always in the frame. You can wander around the room, do chores, Jazzercise, play with the kids or whatever. (Or, if you want, you can tap on the face of one person and the Portal camera will track just them.)
I see the value in tech that reduces the awkwardness of video chats. “We want to remove people from feeling that they are on a call — to the feeling of just being together,” says Rafa Camargo, a Facebook vice president overseeing the product.
The Portal also has a few other tricks. You can share music over a chat for a long-distance dance party or spice up conversations with augmented-reality masks (which add bunny ears, funny glasses and other computer-generated effects to your face). There’s also an AR storybook mode, which adds animated effects to your chat screen while you read a children’s story.
The Portal also takes advantage of the best part about Facebook: photos. When you’re not using the 10-inch touch screen for calls, it displays images from Facebook, such as a shared album you choose. You can also choose to fill the screen with info from your closest Facebook friends, including — you guessed it — birthday reminders. The larger Portal+ has an HD 15.6-inch screen that can swivel between vertical and horizontal views.
The Portal isn’t a fully functional computer. It does less than the Echo Show or Google Smart Displays — there’s no YouTube to make it double as a kitchen TV, for one. The Portal does have a few apps, including Facebook Watch for video and Spotify and Pandora for music.
But the elephant in the room is privacy. A recent Pew Research Center survey found that 74 percent of Facebook members in the U.S. have in the last year taken a break, deleted the app from their phone or adjusted their privacy settings. (I’ve got some advice on the latter here.)
Facebook says it put a priority on privacy in designing the Portal, and it does appear to have learned some lessons. Facebook says it and your friends can’t look into your house anytime they want: Video chats have to be explicitly accepted before the camera cuts on. (There’s nothing like the “drop in” mode on the Echo Show, which lets approved friends remotely turn on your camera.)
The Portal’s video chats are encrypted and not recorded, Facebook says, so the company can’t hear or see what you’re talking about or who all is in the room. (Amazon keeps audio recordings of requests you make to Alexa through the Portal, but Facebook does not.) There are no ads on the Portal, at least for now.
The Portal also has a button on the top that cuts its microphone and camera. And there’s a plastic privacy shield you can keep over the camera, though it looks like an afterthought.
Facebook is hardly alone in pushing the boundaries of privacy in our homes. Amazon’s Echo speakers got millions of people comfortable with the idea living with always-on microphones. Cameras are Silicon Valley’s next frontier, and it’s trying to convince us to install them as video chat devices and security systems.
But the Portal, reportedly delayed from an earlier launch by the Cambridge Analytica data scandal, will pay an extra price for Facebook’s years of playing fast and loose with our privacy. I couldn’t shake the feeling that Facebook eventually wanted to run its facial-recognition tech on my chats, or peer into my living room to see what products I buy to target ads.
Facebook execs say that’s not their intent. “We were very focused on building in privacy from the ground up,” Camargo says. “Hopefully our values shine through.”
The Portal is available for preorder online and will arrive in stores in November. We’ll see if people accept the friend request.
Read more tech advice and analysis from Geoffrey A. Fowler: