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Facebook's Portal video device launches amid privacy concerns

Will people trust the social network's new consumer device after all those data security problems?

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Facebook's new video chat device Portal Plus made its debut on Monday.

James Martin/CNET

In a suite at San Francisco's Four Seasons hotel, Rafa Camargo, a vice president at Facebook's secretive Building 8 hardware lab, sits on a couch discussing the speed of light.

He's explaining the physics behind how sound and video travel, and why there might be a delay if two people tried to, say, sing a song together over a video call. It isn't necessarily something a Facebook executive might obsess over, but it's particularly important for the social network's latest project.

On Monday, Facebook unveiled the Portal and Portal Plus, two video chat devices designed to make it feel as if you're hanging out in the same room with family and friends who happen to be thousands of miles away -- hopefully without any discernible audio delay. The debut of the first Facebook-branded piece of consumer hardware puts the company in head-to-head competition with Google and Amazon for real estate in the home. That could be a tough sell with consumers, who may have second thoughts about adding another microphone and camera in their living rooms.  

The Portal, a 10.1-inch smart display that costs $199, lets you video chat with contacts over Facebook Messenger. The Portal Plus, a larger version for $349, does the same thing with a 15.6-inch screen that pivots between landscape and portrait modes. Facebook developed a new artificial intelligence software for the devices. Called Smart Camera, it senses people's movements and automatically pans, zooms and frames the picture so you don't have to do that yourself.

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The Portal devices put Facebook in competition with Amazon and Google in the smart home.

James Martin/CNET

The devices, as well as the software, came out of Building 8, a skunkworks lab known for out-there, long-term initiatives like developing a method for your brain to communicate directly with a computer or a system that allows your skin to "hear" language through haptics. Both Portal and Portal Plus go on presale Monday in the US and will ship in November.

"It's going to be a unique challenge for Facebook to convince users that making a video call is what they want to invest money in," said Vincent Thielke, a Canalys research analyst who was briefed about Portal before the launch.

The products are a big bet for Facebook. The world's largest social network is under more scrutiny than ever over its ability to safeguard the data of the 2.2 billion people who use its platform every month. Two weeks ago, Facebook disclosed a massive security breach that affected 50 million users because of bugs associated with its video uploader and "View As" feature, which lets users see what their profiles look like to other Facebook users.

Facebook is also still reeling from the Cambridge Analytica scandal, which was revealed in March. The UK-based digital consultancy co-opted the personal data of roughly 87 million people without their permission, causing a worldwide stir.

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"People will have to make their choices," said Camargo, when asked about consumers' concerns over privacy.

According to a recent study by the Ponemon Institute, just 28 percent of the 3,000 Facebook users surveyed by the organization believe Facebook is committed to privacy. Consumers also have other choices when it comes to smart displays, including Amazon's Echo Show and possibly Google's rumored Home Hub, expected to be unveiled on Tuesday.

"We provide more value than anything else," said Camargo. "It's more than a utility." With Monday's announcement, Camargo is becoming vice president of the Portal division, spun out of Building 8.

Embracing Alexa

Here's how the Portal devices work: The software is built on Facebook Messenger, so you can talk to anyone you're connected with on the chat app. You can make calls to another Portal device, a phone or a tablet. You can trigger a call by saying "Hey, Portal, call... " and the name of person you want to reach.

Facebook's video chat devices also tap into Amazon's Alexa smart assistant. The social network said it's open to adding the Google Assistant, too. The company envisions smart home devices eventually having several virtual assistants, allowing users to pick their favorite.

The company also partnered with Spotify, Pandora and iHeartRadio, so everyone on the call could simultaneously listen to a song (hence Camargo's explanation of limits of the speed of light and sound). You can watch videos through the Food Network, Newsy and, naturally, Facebook Watch, the social network's hub for professionally produced video. And when the device isn't being used to video chat, it can display pictures you've pulled from your Facebook feed. It can also notify you about important dates, like birthdays.

Both the Portal and Portal Plus can display augmented reality effects, similar to the digital filter overlays of, say, dog's ears that you'd see on Instagram or Snapchat. A feature called Story Time lets parents tell children's stories over video chat; digital filters of, say, a Big Bad Wolf's head can enhance the storytelling. The feature could be popular at bedtime.

Facebook said CEO Mark Zuckerberg has a Portal at home, which his daughters Max, 2, and August, 1, use to chat with their grandparents. (Zuckerberg wasn't on hand for our briefing.)

While the social network owns virtual reality headset maker Oculus, Facebook-branded consumer hardware has been a long time coming. The company reportedly considered building its own smartphone for years before ultimately ditching that plan. In 2013, the company unveiled Facebook Home, custom-made mobile software for Android devices. It was released for the HTC First phone, but the project flopped and Facebook disbanded the Home team.

Now Facebook joins the fight with Google, Amazon and Apple for smart speaker dominance. Amazon is ahead in the smart speaker battle. Its Echo speaker owns 44 percent of the worldwide market, while Google Home holds 27 percent, according to Strategy Analytics. Google is expected to unveil a smart video device of its own, rumored to be called the Home Hub, at an event on Tuesday.

The privacy question

As with any smart home device, consumers need to be aware of what information is being collected, and they need to actively manage that data, said Stacey Gray, policy counsel at the Future of Privacy Forum. (Facebook is a sponsor of the organization.)

"For people who have chosen not to have one of these devices in their homes, often it's because of a lack of trust or understanding in the way that microphone-enabled devices work," Gray said.

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Facebook unveiled two video chat devices on Monday. The Portal comes with a 10.1-inch smart display and costs $199.

James Martin/CNET

Facebook said that Portal doesn't record video calls and that those calls are encrypted. People worried about privacy can additionally cover the camera lens, mute calls and press a button to shut off the camera and microphone. (After all, even Zuckerberg puts tape over his laptop camera and microphone jack.)

Portal's AI technology runs on the device -- not on Facebook's servers -- and the smart camera doesn't identify you. Consumers can also delete a history of their Portal calls on Facebook and set up a passcode to keep their screen locked.

Facebook said the company won't use Portal data directly for ad targeting, but it will record data like call times and lengths. That data could be used by the Messenger team to help build a better profile of users, Camargo said.

The Future of Privacy Forum, which got an early peek at Portal, said it confirmed with Facebook that it won't track the number of people in a room or the products they use during a video call.

All of those reassurances are important when Facebook's existential challenge is to regain consumer trust.

"Healthy skepticism for a product, any product in the home, is fair," said Dave Kaufman, marketing lead for Portal.

Now it's up to consumers to decide if they trust Facebook enough to give it a place inside their homes.  

Cambridge Analytica: Everything you need to know about Facebook's data mining scandal.

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