Facebook wants you to put a camera into your living room: The company officially unveiled its Portal TV device Wednesday that brings video chatting, augmented reality (AR) and Facebook Watch to any TV set. In addition, the company also unveiled two new Portal smart display devices that are aggressively priced to grow the company’s home devices market share.
The Portal TV device will sell for $149 when it becomes available on November 5. The new 8-inch Portal Mini and the refreshed 10-inch portal are priced $129 and $179, respectively, and will go on sale on October 15. The launch of Portal TV had previously been reported by Variety and The Information.
Portal TV is an all-in-one device that connects to your TVs HDMI port, and that can be placed both above the TV, as well as below, angled upwards. Facebook’s head of Portal Ryan Cairns said at a press event in San Francisco Tuesday that the company had tested Portal TV with hundreds of TV sets.
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Portal TV up close.
The core focus of Portal TV clearly is video chatting, both with other Portal and Portal TV users as well as with consumers who have Facebook Messenger or Whatsapp on their mobile phones. The device is equipped with a wide-angle camera with a 120-degree field-of-view, which is capable of following people across the room during a video chat to keep them in frame.
Consumers can even decide to focus on one of multiple people during a video call, and also add a number of augmented reality (AR) face filters to chat with cat ears, funny hats and more, similar to the effects already available on the company’s Messenger mobile apps. What’s more, Facebook has added a handful of simple AR games to Portal, which can be played in a split screen mode.
Portal TV also offers co-viewing functionality, making it possible to binge on Facebook Watch videos together with other Portal users while video chatting with them, picture-in-picture style.
In addition to Facebook Watch, Portal TV it will launch with Amazon Prime Video, as well as Starz, Pluto TV, Pandora, iHeartradio, CNN, ABC News and Spotify, among others. None of these apps currently offers co-viewing, but a spokesperson said that the company was looking to add more co-viewing partners over time.
Also notably absent at launch: Netflix, HBO and YouTube. The company plans to add more video apps down the line, but Facebook vice president of AR and VR Andrew Bosworth also made it clear that the goal wasn’t necessarily to replace a Roku. “If somebody wants to watch Netflix, they probably have a way to watch Netflix,” Bosworth said.
Portal TV ships with a small remote control that looks a bit like the remote that shipped with the original Oculus Rift headset. It features an integrated microphone for times when far-field voice control just doesn’t work, and infrared to turn TV sets on and off. Portal TV is also capable of controlling TVs via HDMI CEC, which means that you can use voice commands to have it turn on your TV.
The device comes with a small integrated loudspeaker to give audible feedback when the TV is still firing up, but otherwise, Portal TV relies on a TV’s integrated speaker system — a compromise that helps Facebook to keep costs down, but requires audio quality compromises, as an audio hardware expert told Variety last week. Facebook is looking to make up for this by adding an array of 8 microphones for far-field voice control and echo cancellation.
Speaking of costs: Bosworth told journalists Tuesday that reason for introducing two new standalone Portal devices was to offer access to Portal at a lower price point. Both the Portal Mini and the new regular Portal come with a screen resolution of 1280 x 800 pixels, and the camera in both devices utilizes a 114 degree field-of-view.
The new Portal Mini looks a lot like a photo frame, complete with an option to display your Facebook and Instagram pictures.
That’s a step down from the previous 10-inch Portal, which had a camera with 140 degrees field-of-view. (Facebook will keep selling the original Portal + device, which combines a 140 degrees field-of-view camera with a 15.6-inch screen, with a new price of $279, down from $349.)
The new Portal and Portal Mini otherwise largely mimic the original Portal, albeit with a design that’s more reminiscent of a picture frame than a smart speaker. Also new: Consumers can switch to portrait mode for video calling simply by turning the entire device sideways.
Facebook first unveiled Portal a year ago, when it was still reeling from the privacy backlash caused by the Cambridge Analytica scandal. “We launched into a great headwind,” admitted Bosworth Tuesday.
To address some of these concerns, Facebook has integrated physical camera shutters into the new devices. What’s more, the company is now also giving consumers a chance to decide that they don’t want to have their voice recordings stored in the cloud, and that they don’t want Facebook contractors to listen to them.
Bosworth argued Tuesday that public sentiment had shifted, with competitors like Amazon and Google shipping smart displays with integrated cameras as well. “In the future, a smart display that doesn’t have a camera isn’t gonna be competitive,” he predicted.