Cam­era shy ?

Do you trust Face­book enough to in­stall its new video de­vice in your home? We’re not sure, ei­ther

Bristol Post - - TECH NOW -

YOU wouldn’t be a fool for think­ing now might not be a good time for Face­book to ask its cus­tomers to trust it more than they ever have done be­fore.

Af­ter all, the so­cial net­work gi­ant has suf­fered what you might call a bit of bad PR on the pri­vacy front over the last few months.

First there was the Cam­bridge An­a­lyt­ica scan­dal then, just last week, Face­book re­vealed “up to 50m” of its ac­counts had been hacked – so this week would seem an odd time for the com­pany to an­nounce the launch of a new de­vice that has a cam­era in it… which it wants you to put in your home.

I mean, would you have a cam­era that was made by Face­book in your home? I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t.

And yet that has not stopped Mark Zucker­berg and co re­veal­ing plans for a new Face­book-branded hard­ware de­vice called Portal – a video com­mu­ni­ca­tions de­vice that sits in your home.

It will come in two ver­sions – one with a 10-inch screen just called Portal, and Portal+, which has a 15-inch screen that can be spun round so you can look at it in por­trait or land­scape ori­en­ta­tion.

“Thanks to AI tech­nol­ogy,” Face­book says, “Portal makes video call­ing eas­ier and more like hang­ing out, while a widescreen dis­play lets you en­joy ev­ery mo­ment to­gether. When you can’t be there, Portal and Portal+ let you feel there.”

And, pri­vacy con­cerns aside, herein lies the prob­lem – the Portal seems to solve a prob­lem we don’t re­ally have. There are lots and lots of ways to video chat with friends and fam­ily, from the iPhone’s FaceTime to the Ama­zon Echo Show (which is very sim­i­lar in many ways to Face­book’s Portal). Do we re­ally need an­other video con­fer­enc­ing screen in our homes?

Face­book says Portal is a bit dif­fer­ent in that it is in­tended to be used from fur­ther away than other video call­ing de­vices, and its cam­era of­fers a wider field of view. Ar­ti­fi­cial AI smarts can iden­tify peo­ple within the cam­era’s field of view and fol­low them around so they’re al­ways in shot.

The idea is that you just feel like you’re in the room with some­one else while stuff is go­ing on – it’s not nec­es­sar­ily just about a one-on-one phone call with video.

It runs a very limited amount of soft­ware, too – ob­vi­ously the com­mu­ni­ca­tion is done via Mes­sen­ger and Face­book, and you can chat with peo­ple who only have a smart­phone and tablet. There can be up to seven peo­ple on one call.

Ama­zon’s Alexa AI as­sis­tant is built-in, so that makes the de­vice a whole lot more use­ful in a stroke. But I’m frankly hav­ing a hard time puz­zling out why you would use this in­stead of Ama­zon’s own Echo de­vices.

There are a few other fea­tures – it runs Spo­tify, so can play mu­sic in the room. And there’s video in the form of Face­book’s own fledgling Watch ser­vice.

Face­book is clearly aware of its pri­vacy is­sues and goes to great lengths on the Portal web­site to ex­plain just how in­no­cent the de­vice is – it even ships with a clip you can use to phys­i­cally cover the cam­era up. Face­book knows we don’t trust it.

Any­way, the de­vice is avail­able for pre-or­der in the US only at the mo­ment, but is slated to come to the UK soon, too. Its charg­ing $199 (£150) for the smaller de­vice, and $349 (£265) for the big one, al­though there are dis­counts if you buy mul­ti­ple de­vices.

It’s a very puz­zling re­lease from Face­book, both in terms of the na­ture of the de­vice, and the tim­ing of its re­lease.

I pre­dict it’ll have a hard time in the mar­ket. It just seems like the wrong de­vice at the wrong time.

See portal.face­ for more in­for­ma­tion.

Trust me, I’m a so­cial me­dia gi­ant... Face­book’s new Portal de­vice in­cludes a cam­era

The screen can ro­tate to be land­scape or por­trait

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