Facebook pushes into smart home space with Portal – a camera-equipped speaker

As well potentially opening up more display inventory for Facebook, it also gives the platform a chance to get in on voice / Facebook

​Facebook is upping the ante against Amazon and Google with the launch of Portal, a smart speaker and display product that's been designed with video calls in mind.

Portal is powered by an AI camera that "stays with the action" and automatically zooms to keep people in the frame. Facebook is pitching it as a device that will make Messenger video calls easier and "more like hanging out".

While the long-anticipated product could eventually open up fresh display advertising revenue streams for Facebook, its launch comes in the aftermath of the social network's biggest ever data breach and amid growing concerns around user privacy.

The move also marks Facebook's first foray into the hardware space outwith Oculus – the VR headset company it snapped up in 2014.

Portal is similar to Amazon's Echo Show. It comes equipped with a camera and a microphone. These features have raised some eyebrows, given that Facebook revealed two weeks ago the data of at least 50 million users had been compromised due to vulnerabilities in its own system.

Just before the hack, a study from first-party data firm Jebbit found that in the US alone, Facebook was ranked as he least-trusted company for users in terms of handing over their personal data in exchange for relevant services.

Anticipating scrutiny, Facebook said in a blog post that Portal had been designed with "privacy and security in mind", noting that the camera and microphone can be disabled with a tap and that it comes equipped with a lens cover.

Facebook's vice-president Andrew Bosworth told the BBC "We understand that inviting a camera and microphone into your home is the kind of thing that will give a consumer pause, especially for a new category of products around video calling that haven't been really common for consumers to have access to,"

"And so not one week ago nor six months ago, but two years ago we started on a privacy-first plan for this product."

The speaker comes integrated with Amazon's Alexa voice assistant technology, which provides an always-listening service for initiating these calls amid other functions like setting reminders and ordering groceries.

Facebook said that despite this it doesn't listen to, view, or keep the contents of video calls, which are encrypted.

Portal only sends voice commands to Facebook servers after a user says: 'Hey Portal', just like the Amazon Echo and Google Home. People can delete their Portal voice history in their Facebook Activity Log at any time.

It also supports AR filters to make calls more interactive.

The speaker will go on sale in the US in November. For now, Facebook is tight-lipped on what other markets it will move into.

As well potentially opening up more display inventory for Facebook, it also gives the platform a chance to get in on the burgeoning voice trend.

According to the IAB's recent 'Find your Voice' report, the medium will be a major focus for the UK marketing sector in the coming year, with 79% of the industry body's members saying it will be a key comms channel and 24% citing the development of voice interfaces as a priority for 2018.

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