Facebook today announced three new products as part of its growing Portal family of smart home gadgets, including two smaller versions of its flagship video chat device. The larger of the two screens is called Portal, and represents a redesign of the previous year’s model, and the smaller one is known as Portal Mini. The third device, a combined camera and microphone attachment for your television, also joins the lineup today under the name Portal TV. The news confirms reports about Facebook’s upcoming Portal refresh that began percolating earlier this summer.
Andrew “Boz” Bosworth, the head of augmented and virtual reality technology at Facebook, gave members of the press an early look at the devices Tuesday in an ornate Victorian home in the Pacific Heights neighborhood of San Francisco. The company staged a number of in-home scenes in which its Portal devices might reasonably be plugged in, such as in the kitchen, on a shelf in the living room, or attached to your main television set.
At the event, Bosworth offered a live demo alongside Portal chief Ryan Cairns while talking up the company’s commitment to hardware. For Facebook, Bosworth says, Portal helps its users connect in a more meaningful way than other video chat devices.
“It’s not really about the hardware — it’s about people,” Bosworth said. “With our mission to connect people, that’s not a mission that stops at mobile phones. Mark [Zuckerberg] has said, ‘We’re going to connect all the people that have mobile phones right now.’ But we have to think beyond phones.”
The goal is not to sell hardware with large profit margins, or even to collect any meaningful data for targeted advertising — Facebook almost certainly loses money on the division. (Facebook does not break out Portal’s performance in quarterly earnings reports, and Bosworth says no information from the content of calls is ever used for ad targeting.) He did say that Facebook will use your general Portal behavior, such as how often you use its calling features or its streaming video apps, for ad targeting, though he says it is not the point of the product and is just a byproduct of relying on Facebook’s infrastructure.
Investing in smart display technology is a necessity for Facebook to stay current with how people communicate in the future, and to ensure Amazon and Google don’t overtake them in that regard. “We know the smart device category is packed and competitive. Those devices are great. They will answer the door for you and tell you a joke,” Bosworth said. “But Portal is the one device that will connect you with the people you care the most about.”
With Portal and Portal Mini, Bosworth says Facebook primarily wanted to drop the price of its devices to get them into the hands of more consumers. The eight-inch Portal Mini will retail for $129, while the 10-inch Portal will retail for $179. Bosworth would not share sales figures for Portal up until now, saying only that sales were promising enough for Facebook to continue investing.
Both devices can be oriented in standard picture frame-style portrait mode or horizontally in landscape mode. But neither swivels like the Portal Plus, the largest device in the lineup, released last year for $349. You’ll have to manually rotate these new smart displays, as was the case with last year’s standard Portal. The new Portal screens will begin shipping October 15th, while $149 Portal TV comes out on November 5th.
In addition to cheaper, smaller devices, Facebook is also bringing Portal to more countries and adding some marquee features. Beyond the US and Canada, Portal products will now be available in Australia and New Zealand. For European customers, Portal will start selling in the United Kingdom, as well as France, Italy, and Spain.
Portal is also getting WhatsApp support for calls and video chat devices, making it especially useful in countries outside North America where WhatsApp is far more popular. Both the international expansion and WhatsApp support were initially announced at Facebook’s F8 developer conference in late April.
The new Portals also support picture-in-picture viewing sessions, so you and a friend can both view a video on Facebook Watch together. Facebook has also extended its partnership with Amazon, which already provides Alexa assistant support as an alternative to Facebook’s own voice assistant, to offer Amazon Prime Video as a Portal app.
On the newest Portal screens, Facebook is introducing additional privacy features to lure customers who might balk at the idea of putting a Facebook-owned camera and microphone in their home. The new Portal devices come with switches that will shut off access to the camera or both the camera and the microphone. Bosworth says that will ensure that anyone who is concerned about their privacy can manually disable the functions at a hardware level, and not just a software one that could be breached by a hacker.
When you activate Portal’s built-in voice assistant, those requests and voice exchanges with the device are saved, sent, and stored on Facebook servers, Bosworth said. The company will continue to use human employees to review a subset of recordings to improve accuracy and help train the underlying algorithm, he said.
But Facebook will also now let you opt out of that process entirely. It’s a direct response to the voice assistant controversy that swept through Silicon Valley this year, starting with a report about the extent to which human reviewers have access to sensitive Amazon Alexa voice data.
Following the initial Amazon report, pretty much every big technology company that operates any kind of artificial intelligence-powered voice product was revealed to be using human reviewers of their own. Facebook relied on human contractors to review Messenger audio captured for its speech-to-text feature, but the company has since “paused” human review for that feature.
Some companies, including Apple and Google, also paused the review process, and Apple later made it the default option to not store and review Siri recordings. (Amazon and Google will still store your recordings and reserve the right to review them, although Google lets you opt out. Amazon does not.) Facebook will not opt users out of human review for Portal by default, but Bosworth says there will be an option in settings to opt out and ensure no voice data or recordings are stored or reviewed by humans.
Facebook’s newest devices are arriving at a time of substantial uncertainty at the company. Although Facebook’s core ad business is booming and its user growth still increasing, the company is struggling to regain user trust after a tumultuous few years of privacy, data security, misinformation, and election integrity scandals that have painted Facebook as a scourge on both society and modern democracy. But the company’s hardware product teams are moving full steam ahead, in part because Bosworth sees the smart home market moving toward devices that are oriented more around people and ways that technology can help them connect and communicate. And Facebook, he says, is great at that.
“We launched [Portal] into a great headwind last year,” he said of the initial pair of devices arriving amid regulatory investigations, immense public and political scrutiny, and only six months after the Cambridge Analytica data privacy incident rocked the company to its core. But “people like Facebook and they like connecting with other people and this device does exactly that,” Bosworth added. “People asked, ‘Is it the right time to launch this product?’ It is the perfect time. This product is the core essence of what Facebook does.”
Photography by Nick Statt / The Verge