From Your Phone to Your Home: Facebook introduces Portal TV for smart video calls

by: Samantha Breeze

On September 18, 2019, The Verge published an article concerning Facebook’s launching of the newest addition to its technology campaign: Portal TV. For $149, users can pre-order the device that is set to begin shipping on November 5th and have access to a substantial number of features, including video calls through Messenger and WhatsApp, Alexa built-in, Story Time for children, and automatic panning and zooming. The announcement of Portal TV is accompanied by the complementary devices of the 10-inch Portal and 8-inch Portal Mini. Set-up requires only an HDMI cord and a Facebook login. The device is also compatible with other streaming services such as Amazon Prime, ShowTime, and CBS All Access. According to an early review, the positives of the device are camera tracking during calls, turning a TV into a smart display, and integrating Alexa. Meanwhile, the negatives are that it has blurry motion at a distance, unimproved camera quality, and the filters do not scale up well.

While many of these features are certainly buzz-worthy, The Verge acknowledged how Facebook’s hardware and features are plagued by privacy concerns. Following the scandal that broke loose after the American public discovered Cambridge Analytica had access to personal information gathered by Facebook, public confidence in the company’s privacy protections significantly decreased. While Facebook has worked to overcome public concerns, according to a Reuters poll, 51% of people said they either did not trust Facebook, or did not trust it much. While Facebook has worked hard to restore a trusting relationship with its users, the damage has not been forgotten.

As part of its marketing strategy to overcome the prior privacy lapses, Facebook has made clear its privacy features that were built into the device. The Portal even has its own privacy webpage, titled ‘Private by Design’ to placate consumers. The webpage contains both videos and writing describing features and interactions to ensure that users are comfortable with the device. Privacy features include a camera and microphone off switch, a camera cover, a screen lock, end-to-end encryption through WhatsApp, and reduced interaction with Facebook servers. There is also a “Frequently Asked Questions” (FAQ) segment for users who want additional information about privacy. However, these privacy features may still not be enough to overcome consumer concerns even at palatable prices. The reviews following the product launch appear to a mix between support and hesitation

Among the privacy features, one of the most critical is the limited access to Facebook servers. While the device users voice interactions, initiated by saying “Hey Portal,” the interactions are only sent to Facebook servers after the initiating phrase is used. Users can also review and delete the portal’s voice interactions by accessing portal setting or though activity logs. Otherwise, the interactions are stored for three years. The feature can also be disabled. Additionally, the smart cameras run locally rather than through the Facebook serves. Therefore, Facebook is sending the message that it values privacy. The company even includes what information is collected by the portal in its FAQ rather than only including it in its lengthy terms of service contract. However, it still collects most of the information that the Facebook app collects, like when the user logs into an account, makes a call, and how often the feature or app is used. This information can be used to tailor the ads the user views, the same as when using the Facebook app.

Through Portal TV, Facebook is currently working to reach further into the technology industry by continuing to expand beyond social media. While the tech giant claims the preference by users for social media platform, it may have a harder time breaking into the home hardware industry. Its competitors in the area include Amazon, Google, and Apple who already have a consumer base for home installations and name recognition. Facebook is the only company to have a camera integrated with both the TV and the users’ personal contacts, giving the company an edge over its competitors. To stay relevant, Facebook has no option but to compete and attempt to secure its own installation base. As the company moves from being on user’s phones to in their homes, it begs the question as to what the future holds for the big tech giant and what aspect of user’s lives it will reach into next.