Facebook wants to take over your television with a clip-on camera for video calling, AR gaming and content co-watching. If you can get past the creepiness, the new Portal TV lets you hang out with friends on your home’s biggest screen. It’s a fresh product category that could give the social network a unique foothold in the living room, where, unlike on phones where it’s beholden to Apple and Google, Facebook owns the hardware and operating system.
Today Facebook unveiled a new line of Portal devices that bring to smaller smart screen form factors its auto-zooming AI camera, in-house voice assistant speaker, Alexa, apps like Spotify and newly added Amazon Prime Video, Messenger video chat and now end-to-end encrypted WhatsApp video calls.
The $149 Portal TV is the star of the show, turning most televisions with an HDMI connection into a video chat device. And if you video call between two Portal TVs, you can use the new Watch Together feature to co-view Facebook Watch videos simultaneously while chilling together over picture-in-picture. The Portal TV is a genius way for Facebook to make its hardware both cheaper yet more immersive by co-opting a screen you already own and have given a space in your life, thereby leapfrogging smart speakers like Amazon Echo and Google Home.
There’s also the new pint-size 8-inch Portal Mini for just $129, which makes counter-top video chat exceedingly cheap. The 10-inch Portal that launched a year ago now has a sleeker, minimal bezel look with a price drop (from $199 to $179). Both look more like digital picture frames, which they are, and can be stood on their side or end for optimal full-screen chatting. Lastly, the giant 15.6-inch Portal+ swivel screen falls to $279 instead of $349, and you still get $50 off if you buy any two Portal devices.
“The TV has been a staple of living rooms around the world, but to date it’s been primarily about people who are physically interacting with the device,” Facebook’s VP of consumer hardware Andrew “Boz” Bosworth tells me at a press event inside a San Francisco Victorian house. “We see the opportunity for people to use their TVs not just to do that but also to interact with other people.”
The new Portals go on pre-sale today from Portal.facebook.com, Amazon and Best Buy in the U.S. and Canada, plus new markets like the U.K., Australia, New Zealand, Spain, Italy and France (though the “Hey Portal” assistant only works in English). Portal and Portal Mini ship October 15th and Portal TV ships November 5th.
The whole Portal gang lack essential video apps like Netflix and HBO, and Boz claims he’s not trying to compete directly with Roku, Fire TV, etc. Instead, Facebook is trying to win where it’s strongest, on communication and video chat where rivals lack a scaled social network.
“You’re kind of more hanging out. It isn’t as transactional. It’s not as urgent as when you sacrifice your left arm to the cause,” explains Boz. Like how Fortnite created a way for people to just chill together while gaming remotely, Portal TV could do the same for watching television together, apart.
Battling the creepiness
The original Portal launched a year ago to favorable reviews, except for one sticking point: journalists all thought it was too sketchy to bring Facebook surveillance tech inside their homes. Whether the mainstream consumer feels the same way is still a mystery, as the company has refused to share sales numbers. Though Boz told me, “The engagement, the retention numbers are all really positive,” we haven’t seen developers like Netflix rush to bring their apps to the Portal platform.
To that end, privacy on Portal no longer feels clipped on like the old plastic removable camera covers. “We have to always do more work to grow the number of people who have that level of comfort, and bring that technology into their home,” says Boz. “We’ve done what we can in this latest generation of products, now with integrated camera covers that are hardware, indicator lights when the microphone is off and form factors that are less obtrusive and blend more into the background of the home.”
One major change stems from a scandal that spread across the tech sector, with Apple, Google, Amazon and Facebook all being criticized for quietly sending voice clips to human reviewers to improve speech recognition in what felt like a privacy violation. “Part of the Portal out-of-box experience is going to be a splash screen on data storage and it will literally walk through how . . . when we hear ‘Hey Portal’ a voice recording and transcription is sent, it may be reviewed by humans, and people have the ability to opt out.”