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Facebook’s New Portal Video-Calling Devices Let Users Co-Stream Music, Video

Social-media giant emphasizes privacy features with launch of $199 and $349 devices

Facebook unveiled Portal, video-communication devices that incorporate smart-speaker features using Amazon’s Alexa, and provide a way to listen to music and watch videos together with friends.

Portal ($199) and the larger-screen Portal+ ($349) will begin shipping in November. The devices, which feature 12-megapixel cameras, make video calling “easier and more like hanging out,” according to Facebook. Users can make calls to any Facebook or Messenger user.

Portal enables shared activities like listening to music together or watching shows. For the initial launch, Facebook has pacted with Spotify Premium, Pandora, and iHeartRadio on the audio side, and will let Portal users stream videos from Facebook Watch, Discovery’s Food Network and E.W. Scripps’ Newsy. More media partners are in the queue, the social giant said.

Facebook’s Portal devices include Amazon’s Alexa voice assistant, so users can ask the devices for things like sports scores and weather updates, as well as launch a video call with a “Hey Portal” command. It also provides Alexa-based controls for smart-home devices and can even let you order groceries, according to Facebook.

That makes Portal something of a competitor to Amazon’s video-enabled Echo Show smart speakers — even as Amazon is a key partner for Facebook with the new hardware.

The entry-level Portal includes a 10-inch, 1280-by-800-pixel display; Portal+ has a 15-inch, 1920-by-1080 pivoting display. Both devices are available to pre-order in the U.S. from Facebook at portal.facebook.com, as well as Amazon.com and Best Buy. Facebook also is offering a $100 bundled discount if you purchase any two devices (so two Portal devices will be cost $298).

Both Portal models support group calls of up to seven people simultaneously.

Facebook emphasized privacy and security features of Portal — an acknowledgement of recent major user-data breaches, including the company’s disclosure last month of a security flaw that let hackers access info on up to 50 million user accounts.

According to Facebook, the company “doesn’t listen to, view, or keep the contents of your Portal video calls.” In addition, the Portal video calls are encrypted and the devices’ artificial-intelligence features run locally (rather than on Facebook servers). Facebook says Portal’s camera doesn’t use facial recognition and doesn’t identify who you are.

Facebook also said Portal only sends voice commands to Facebook servers after you say, “Hey Portal.” Users can delete the Portal’s voice history in their Facebook Activity Log. Other security features: Users can completely disable the camera and microphone with a single tap, and the Portal devices come with a camera cover to block the camera lens while still having the ability to receive incoming calls and notifications and use voice commands.

The Portal’s “Smart Camera” feature is able to automatically pan and zoom to keep people in view during a video call. In addition, the “Smart Sound” reduces background noise and enhances the voice of whoever is speaking. Per Facebook: “It’s like having your own cinematographer and sound crew direct your personal video calls.”

Portal includes augmented-reality (AR) effects, which use Facebook’s Spark AR platform, to let you insert custom sound effects and visuals. For example, one feature lets a Portal user read a story via a teleprompter, while viewers on the other end of the video call “watch as your face and voice transform into the story’s characters,” according to Facebook.

When not in use, the Portal devices also act as digital picture-frames. In screensaver mode, the Superframe feature can display favorite photos and videos and notifications like birthday reminders.

According to Facebook, 400 million people use voice and video chat on Messenger monthly. Facebook Messenger users launched 17 billion video chats in 2017, twice as many as 2016.

Facebook is launching an ad campaign to promote Portal — watch the first spot (“Feel There”) below:

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