Facebook is launching two video call devices that use is Messenger platform and Alexa’s smart assistant, but the AI zooming feature is sparking privacy concerns.
The Portal products automatically zoom in on users and follow them as they move, to offer a superior experience to existing smartphone and tablet apps.
Surprisingly, the device doesn’t run Facebook and there’s no web browser. The social networking giant has gone to some trouble to allay fears about the fact the device is designed to take up a permanent residence in one corner of your home.
“Facebook doesn’t listen to, view, or keep the contents of your Portal video calls,” the company said. You can turn off the camera and mic with a double tap, and delete your entire voice history with one command.
It’s bold move for a company hampered by privacy issues stemming from the Cambridge Analytica data scandal and a massive hack that may have compromised 50 million users.
Both of the Portals are designed to be used from a distance of between 5ft to 10ft (1.5m to 3m) – further than video calls are typically made from using smartphones and other computers.
They use a 140-degree 12 megapixel camera to capture a relatively wide field-of-view, providing scope for on-device software to zoom in and track the users’ movements.
In SmartCamera mode, the machines automatically reframe the image to take account of additional people entering the room.
But by tapping on a person’s face, the user on the other end of the call enters Spotlight mode. This allows them to focus on an individual of their choosing, letting – for example – a grandmother follow her grandson even if his parent is the one talking.
Augmented reality graphics can be overlaid on to the image. Some are for comedic effect – for instance putting cat hats on people’s heads. But the tech is also used for a selection of stories, which a parent can read from afar while relevant visual effects appear.
Users can also trigger songs from Spotify or Pandora to be played simultaneously on both their own Portal and the one receiving the call without causing an echo effect.
In addition to one-on-one calls, up to seven Portals can take part in group chats.
Calls can also be routed to the Messenger app on other kinds of devices although some functionality is lost.
The flagship device – the Portal+ – features a 15.6in (39.6cm) 1080p display that can be rotated on its stand to appear in landscape or portrait mode. It is priced at $349 (£270).