Last year, Facebook decided to get in on the AI-powered personal assistant game by introducing Portal, their first-ever home gadget designed for video chat.
This social media device comes in two flavors. The first one is Portal which is priced at $199, features a 10-inch screen and a 12-megapixel camera with 720p resolution. Meanwhile, Portal+ has a 15.6 inch, 12Mp HD display and costs $349. The camera on both models features a rotating 140-degree field of vision. Not only can Portal follow people as they walk around, but it can also track faces and body movement.
It also comes with Alexa-enabled tech, which, as many people know, allows you to ask a question, play music, or interact with your other smart devices at home.
Looking Under The Hood
While Portal wants consumers to think that it’s a seamless blend of video conferencing and smart assistant technology, it’s also got some issues like any other product out there.
And considering the fact that this is Facebook we’re talking about - and all the baggage that comes with them - it’s worth approaching this snazzy piece of hardware with a LOT of reservations.
First, let’s address the data-harvesting elephant in the room. If you so as much cracked open a newspaper last year, then you’ve probably gotten a whiff of the scandals involving Facebook recently.
On the tip of the Iceberg, you’ve got the Cambridge Analytica fiasco which sparked data privacy concerns across different continents. Then there's the problem of fake accounts pushing political agendas in regions such as Iran and Russia. Worse, there was a security breach which has compromised at least 50 million users just last year. With so much controversy dogging the social media giant, it’s an ill-timed decision to release a product that only seems to stir the pot even more.
Here's a more significant concern: while Portal's product page bandies the official tagline "Private by design," there seem to be strings attached to that bold claim. After some investigative digging, it was uncovered that Portal could “potentially” collect user data for ad targeting. According to a statement from the company, however, they “don’t intend to use it.” Looking back at the recent Senate hearings, Facebook’s strategically disingenuous and evasive verbiage is par for the course.
And to add fuel to the fire, Facebook employees were caught red-handed trying to game reviews on Amazon by leaving high ratings. Technology columnist Kevin Roose discovered that certain “satisfied customers” turned out to have the same name as people working within the company’s ranks.
Roose succinctly described it as “coordinated inauthentic behavior,” leaving Facebook with one less ethical leg to stand on.
Portal’s Bells and Whistles Aren’t What They’re Cracked Up To Be
While the less tech-savvy users in the older age brackets aren’t going to find any problems with Portal’s clear display and tracking features, that doesn’t make it perfect by any means. With its bulky, lumbering aesthetic, Portal is a Frankenstein-esque mash-up between a tablet and a speaker. And in a twist of irony, it doesn’t come installed with the Facebook app - nor can you install a browser or any other apps for that matter.
That doesn’t seem well thought out for a product touted as a “smart” device with a touch screen.
To make matters worse, the hardware is inhabited by both Portal and Alexa, which could potentially make it a confusing experience for the uninitiated. Specific voice commands go to a certain AI assistant, which makes for a steeper learning curve.
Furthermore, Portal’s hefty price tag isn’t helping either. Google and Amazon have their own voice assistants, which are Home Hub and Echo Show respectively. They both feature a display screen and other similar (if not better) functions - and a more reasonable price as well.
What Are They Thinking?
It’s possible that Portal is nothing more than an expensive marketing experiment to see how far Facebook can go. On the other hand, they might not simply care about public opinion at this point if they’re confident enough to release their product at a time like this.
Or maybe they know something else that we don’t - and given everything that’s happened, that seems to be Facebook’s business model anyway.
In any case, only time will tell if consumers will embrace this "potentially Orwellian" device and allow it into their homes. As for us, we’ll take a pass on this one.
What's your verdict on Portal? Love it? Hate it? Curious? Let us know in the comments! We'll take your feedback into account when it comes time to integrate video chat technology into TeleFrame.