Facebook unveils ‘Portal’, a video chat camera that uses AI to keep users in frame

Facebook has released a video calling device, although the company’s recent problems with privacy and the product’s price and functionality could slow it from taking on market leaders Amazon and Google. The device, known as Portal, comes in $199 ‘Portal’ and $349 Portal+ versions and its signature feature is a wide-angle camera that automatically keeps users in focus as callers move about a room.

“Our goal is to make you feel present in the same space as the person on the other end,” said Rafa Camargo, the Facebook vice-president overseeing Portal.

Smart speakers costing under $100 from Amazon and Google have become best sellers in the nascent industry. Users issue voice commands to search, shop and listen to music, turning the speakers into a major funnel into the technology companies’ competing networks. Portal could help Facebook stop users from flocking to rival chat and video apps on other speakers and give it a new, wholly controlled environment to sell ads.

About 32% of US consumers own a smart speaker, but another 16% plan to buy one by the end of 2018, according to an Adobe Analytics survey released last month. Facebook expects to stand apart on the market because of Portal’s touchscreen and the 400 million people who call through its Messenger service each month worldwide. Rival smart speakers with screens lack a video-chatting app that is as popular.

Portal’s camera, which uses a form of artificial intelligence to recognise body shapes, is a major marketing point, offering users the convenience of staying in the frame without having to adjust the device.

“Whether you’re cooking in the kitchen or chasing the kids around the living room, ‘Smart Camera’ stays with the action and automatically pans and zooms to keep everyone in view.,” it said. “‘Smart Sound’ minimises background noise and enhances the voice of whoever is talking, no matter where they move. It’s like having your own cinematographer and sound crew direct your personal video calls.”

The launch of the product comes at a tricky time for Facebook. Last month, it announced that up to 90 million accounts had been comprised by a software flaw. Scrutiny this year over Facebook’s privacy and content moderation practices have led some people to abandon the service and the company to warn of thinning profits.

Portal locks with a passcode, and its microphones and camera shuts off with the tap of a button. Video and voice calls are encrypted and contents of them are not stored, the company said. Users can conference with any Messenger user. Portal integrates Amazon’s Alexa voice assistant to handle search queries, and Amazon collects audio files of requests made to Alexa.

The higher-priced Portal’s screen is 15.6 inches, versus 10 inches. Both display photos and notifications from Facebook and videos from Food Network, but offer few other applications. Additional features are available during calls, including joint listening on Spotify. A handful of animated e-books such as Itsy Bitsy Spider will be included at launch.

Portal runs on the open-source version of Google’s Android mobile operating system, similar to many Amazon devices. Facebook’s previous hardware, including its Oculus virtual reality headset and a phone developed with HTC, gained little adoption.