Facebook has finally entered the smart-speaker market. It now offers voice-controlled video calling devices named the Portal and Portal+. They are smart speakers with tablet-sized screens with similar features to other devices. However, Facebook made some unique additions with augmented reality and AI integrated into video calling to serve as cutting-edge technology and unique selling proposition. This makes the product more useful and entertaining for users of all sorts.

An Artificial Intelligence video-calling device

The device will be available for pre-order effective Monday in the United States. Users are accustomed to holding a phone at arm’s length or place themselves in front of the screen. The portal and Portal+ changes that. The Portals use AI to get a sense of all the people within their line of sight and frame them front and center. This technology is also useful to focus on a specific person while on call. Technology is getting pretty casual lately so Facebook plans to market this product in a way that people can have normal conversations by video calling without having to attach themselves to hand held device or stop whatever else they were doing. I mean you could probably talk to your parents while making dinner at home or multitask at work. Businesses could have video conferences with more convenience and relaxation.

On the dark side, Facebook faced severe criticism this year for many data breaches in recent years. It is no real surprise to expect some issues related to privacy. After all, we would be putting cameras in our homes. However, Facebook has worked effortlessly to eliminate security fears by keeping the processes on the device rather than on the cloud where the risk of hacking is comparatively much higher. All calls are encrypted with the AI running directly on the portal and not on Facebook servers. The device sends commands only after it hears, “Hey Portal”.

The camera cover does leave a question mark and paints a good picture about how dangerous these devices can be. It’s an innovation for people accustomed to putting up tape over their cameras especially in IT companies. The button for disabling the microphone is in place along with the lens. So, Facebook is taking all the necessary precautions to reduce privacy issues.

Micro phone

Coming back to the devices themselves, Portal comes in two standard sizes, a 10-inch screen and a 15-inch screen. The Portal is priced at $199 whereas the Portal+ is $349. The price tag is a bit questionable considering there thousands of devices out there capable of doing more than this device. The success comes down to the convenience and use case.

It packs some pretty handy apps especially if you have kids. It can tell children stories via augmented effects app Story Time. Moreover, you can connect it with Amazon’s voice interface “Alexa” to shop online. The camera zooms out to include a second person and follows the individual as they walk around. You can give yourself virtual masks like different animals on video calls.

Time will tell if the added value these devices have to offer compared to other devices would ensure that they are successful in the market. From a personal point of view, the device is great but not really sure if the Portal+ is worth $349. Then again, the latest iPhones start at $749 so you can get a portal and a pretty decent smart phone in this amount.

The vice president of Facebook Portal division, Rafa Camargo, said that they’re building a level of engagement and trust in users through both value and privacy.