‘Lights, cam­era, ac­tion’ is soooo yes­ter­day

Mail & Guardian - - News - Julie Jam­mot

Face­book this week launched a range of video-call­ing de­vices pow­ered by ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence (AI), a strate­gic rev­o­lu­tion for the so­cial net­work giant in its bid for a slice of a mar­ket dom­i­nated by Ama­zon and Google.

“It has been a big shift for the com­pany,” Face­book’s vice-pres­i­dent of con­sumer hard­ware An­drew Bos­worth told AFP be­fore the launch of Portal. “We have seen a rise of video call­ing, on both Messenger and What­sApp — it has been a tremen­dous trend.”

The de­vice al­lows users to make video calls at home with­out hav­ing to stand im­me­di­ately in front of the screen or hold a phone at arm’s length. But the launch of a prod­uct putting a cam­era into homes is likely to raise pri­vacy is­sues for the so­cial me­dia giant, which has suf­fered sev­eral data breaches this year in­volv­ing tens of mil­lions of user ac­counts.

Al­though Face­book ac­quired vir­tual-re­al­ity headset man­u­fac­turer Ocu­lus in 2014, this is the first time it has de­vel­oped a con­sumer hard­ware prod­uct in-house.

Of­fer­ing hands-free voice con­trol, Portal comes in two sizes: a 10-inch screen, which re­tails at $199, and a 15-inch ver­sion will go for $349. And to start the call, all it takes is: “Hey Portal.”

Dur­ing calls, it can play mu­sic on Spo­tify and tell chil­dren sto­ries us­ing the aug­mented ef­fects app Story Time. It also comes bun­dled with Ama­zon’s voice interface, Alexa, en­abling users to shop or con­trol house­hold ap­pli­ances.

Dur­ing a con­ver­sa­tion, the in­te­grated cam­era can au­to­mat­i­cally zoom out to in­clude a sec­ond per­son, or be in­structed to fol­low a cer­tain in­di­vid­ual as they walk around.

Face­book has moved quickly to al­lay se­cu­rity fears, say­ing that by keep­ing the pro­cesses on the ac­tual de­vice rather than in the cloud, the risk of hack­ing is lower than with a smart­phone or com­puter. Calls will be en­crypted, and the AI tech­nol­ogy runs on Portal, not on Face­book servers. It only sends voice com­mands to the servers af­ter hear­ing “Hey Portal”. The cam­era can be blocked by a cover and the de­vice has a but­ton for dis­abling the lens and the mi­cro­phone.

Se­cu­rity is a sen­si­tive is­sue for Face­book, which had 50-mil­lion of its user ac­counts breached by hack­ers last month. Ear­lier in the year, it was forced to ad­mit the per­sonal data of tens of mil­lions of users had been hi­jacked by Cam­bridge An­a­lyt­ica (CA), a Bri­tish firm that worked for United States Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump in 2016.

CA is ac­cused of col­lect­ing and ex­ploit­ing users’ per­sonal data for po­lit­i­cal pur­poses with­out their con­sent.

Face­book has since re­asserted it­self as a guar­an­tor of pri­vacy.

“Frankly, if we don’t build the hard­ware, I do have con­cerns,” Bos­worth said. “You need to have abuse pre­ven­tion very early on; you need to have se­cu­rity built in early on.”

The com­pany worked with a US film direc­tor to make the cam­era move­ments feel nat­u­ral, said Nick Fell, mar­ket­ing direc­tor for the Portal team.

“We set out to try to make video call­ing so good that it feels like you’re shar­ing the same phys­i­cal space as some­one else,” he said.

Face­book rep­re­sen­ta­tives pre­fer to talk about their “mis­sion” rather than busi­ness models and prof­its, but wire­less speak­ers and video calls are a grow­ing mar­ket.

There were 17-bil­lion video calls on Messenger in 2017, dou­ble the num­ber in 2016, ac­cord­ing to data.

An­a­lysts re­acted cau­tiously to Face­book’s an­nounce­ment, say­ing the com­pany was late to the smart­s­peaker mar­ket. But the tech­nol­ogy may be a good move for fu­ture in­vest­ments.

“From a mar­ket per­spec­tive, there’s a good ar­gu­ment that, for con­sumers, smart speak­ers and dig­i­tal as­sis­tants are a cru­cial part of the fu­ture,” said Tom Mor­rod, a re­search direc­tor for con­sumer elec­tron­ics and tele­coms at IHS Markit.

“They’re the ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence cen­tre­point of dig­i­tal life or dig­i­tal home. That’s why it’s a strate­gi­cally im­por­tant thing for Face­book to be do­ing.” — AFP

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