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Facebook Is Launching a Portal TV Device: Here’s What We Know

Facebook is getting ready to launch a TV streaming device in time for the holiday season, Variety has been able to confirm with multiple sources familiar with the company’s plans. The new streaming hardware will be part of the company’s Portal family of devices, featuring a camera, and combining video chatting with TV viewing and augmented reality.

A Facebook spokesperson declined to comment.

Facebook’s plans for such a device have previously been reported by Cheddar and the Information. Here’s everything we know about the device so far, as well as some informed speculation about key features and design decisions that went into building this product.

The device will feature a camera and far-field microphones. For its entry into the TV streaming space, Facebook isn’t just looking to take on Roku and Fire TV. Instead, the company is using its existing Portal platform to put video chatting front and center. To that end, the new Portal TV hardware will feature a camera and integrated far-field microphones. Previous reports have indicated that it will sit on top of a TV set, which should allow it to easily capture the room for video chats.

It will almost certainly be running Android. Facebook’s hardware efforts are largely based on customized versions of Google’s Android operating system these days. Both the company’s Oculus Go and Oculus Quest VR headsets are running Android, as are last year’s two Portal devices, and the upcoming TV device will almost certainly be based on the operating system as well. This will also make it easier to work with content providers, who have already been developing Android-based TV apps for devices from Amazon and Google.

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There will be a bigger focus on content. Speaking of content providers: the Information reported in July that Facebook had approached Netflix, Disney and other media companies about adding their streaming services to its new TV hardware. The status of those talks is unknown, but sources with knowledge of Facebook’s plans told Variety that the new TV device will indeed have a bigger focus on content consumption than existing Portal devices.

To get a sense of how the company might integrate some of that third-party content, it’s worth looking at Facebook’s VR hardware efforts. The company’s Oculus Quest and Go headsets both offer an app called Oculus TV that works as a hub to consolidate third-party content, including linear-like TV channels from providers like Pluto, Newsy and Red Bull TV. There is no confirmation that the company’s TV device will use the same approach, but the industry as a whole has been moving toward these kinds of aggregated experiences, from the Roku Channel to Apple’s TV app.

It will likely feature an integrated speaker. Previous reports have described Facebook’s TV device as integrating a camera and microphones in one housing, which consumers can place atop their TV. Industry insiders are now speculating that the company may choose to also directly integrate a speaker component into the device. An audio hardware expert with experience in video communications who hadn’t been briefed on Facebook’s plans told Variety that it would be risky for the company to rely on built-in TV speakers for the product. “I’m not a fan of reusing the TV speakers,” he said.

Most TVs come with cheap built-in speakers that can distort audio, which complicates the type of echo cancellation necessary for the type of full-duplex (two-way) audio for video chatting, he explained. What’s more, if Facebook’s TV device was going to rely on TV speakers, it would also be dealing with a myriad of settings meant to optimize audio for movie watching, video gaming and other scenarios — none of which may be good for video chats.

The flip side is that adding a speaker could make Facebook’s TV device more bulky, while also adding to the hardware costs for the company. Then again, Facebook has shown that it is happy to forego profits in order to kickstart its hardware efforts. For instance, last year’s Portal device currently sells for $129. “I hope they add a speaker to it,” concluded our expert, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he hadn’t been authorized by his employer to comment on Facebook’s products.

The device will bring AR to the TV screen. One of the often-overlooked aspects of Facebook’s Portal device is its use of augmented reality (AR), which include face filters, interactive stories and more. Facebook’s streamer would be the first device of its kind to bring these kinds of AR effects to the TV screen, and the company is expected to emphasize these features even more across its entire range of Portal products in the future.

It may not be the only new Portal device. Alongside the new TV streaming device, Facebook may also choose to update the 2 Portal models it released last year. Facebook’s vice president of AR/VR hinted at as much this summer when he told the audience of Recode’s Code conference that the company would unveil “a lot more” this fall.

And there’s another reason a refresh would make sense for existing Portal hardware: When Facebook first introduced the devices last year, it was arguably surprised by the privacy backlash it was facing in the aftermath of the Cambridge Analytica scandal. That’s why the company added an extra plastic clip that consumers could use to physically cover a Portal’s camera — a  bandage that was haphazardly added after the fact, if you will. It would make a lot of sense for the company to replace this with an integrated hardware switch to physically disconnect the device’s camera.

Facebook has been trying really hard to keep Portal news secret. There is a reason that a lot of the above is just informed speculation: Facebook has been trying really hard to prevent any leaks around its Portal hardware. The company has thus far avoided the fate of competitors like Apple and Google, whose flagship hardware products regularly leak in great detail before their official announcements. Here’s just one trick Facebook used last year before introducing the original Portal hardware to the world: It founded a dedicated shell company, dubbed MCBP Technologies, LLC, to submit all of the necessary regulatory filings to the FCC without having tech bloggers notice it.

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