Facebook, in its quest to become the one part of the internet you cannot do without, has introduced something new. Something different. Something… physical? Something called Portal, which is the name it’s given to a couple of internet-connected cameras designed with video calling in mind.
There are two devices in Facebook’s new announcement — the Portal and the Portal+. One, as you might have guessed, is larger than the other but both are made up of a touchscreen display (10in, 1,280 x 800 for Portal and 15in, 1,920 x 1,080 for Portal+), a video camera, and speakers — it looks like an Amazon Echo had babies with an iPad, really. In other words, just like an Amazon Echo Show.
The video-calling appliance will let users make video calls to other folks who have Messenger, or a Portal camera in their homes, and the major selling point (or creepiest feature, depending who you ask) is that the Smart Camera feature will automatically track people in range, zooming in and out to keep folks in frame. There’s also a feature called Smart Sound that tones down background noise when you’re on a call. The device can be controlled via voice (“Hey, Portal…”) using a Facebook-developed voice assistant, and it supports Amazon’s Alexa, too.
Which is just what we want to put in our homes — cameras connected directly to Facebook that are capable of following people around a room. Facebook knows that people are skeptical about their security, what with all of the recent account breaches, Cambridge Analytica, and Facebook’s general disregard for user privacy when it’s convenient.
To that end, they’ve said that the camera’s sensor and microphones can be turned off with a press of a button, the devices ship with a camera cover (not really a vote of confidence, guys), and the Portal can be password-protected.
Trust me… please?
Facebook also claims that the company won’t “…listen to, view, or keep the contents of your Portal video calls”, that Portal doesn’t use Facebook’s servers for Smart Camera and Smart Sound, and the Portal only sends voice data through to Facebook if you say the words “Hey, Portal…”. All of which is probably accurate, since the company is under a lot of scrutiny of late.
We just wish we could believe that it’ll all stay that way. As TechCrunch points out, Facebook is all about collecting user data (no matter what they claim to be doing) and they have a habit of starting out reasonable before they turn the dials up to “Collect EVERYTHING!”. We don’t have much reason to believe this’ll be any different. Plus, there’s a track record of asking for forgiveness rather than permission.
But, if you absolutely must have a Facebook-powered video camera capable of tracking your family in your home so you can video-call relatives while making avocado toast, Portal is up for pre-order in the States. The standard Portal starts at $199 (R3,000) and the Portal+ at $349 (R5,200). Order one, if you must. It’s your data, after all. Us, we’ll be giving it a skip. We’ve seen enough science fiction movies with portals to know they’re almost always a terrible, sometimes world-ending, idea.