We Tried Facebook’s New Portal Device (So You Don’t Have To)

Here’s what happened when two Times tech reporters installed Facebook’s new Portal video-calling gadgets in their bedrooms.

Comments: 62

  1. As people drift away from Fb, device isn't useful anymore. I for one have weaned off of Fb for a variety of reasons, privacy foremost.

  2. I still don't understand why anyone would use this over the video calling device they already have (ie their smartphones)?

  3. @ABT I could see it being great for people like me who video chat near-daily with faraway loved ones - we could cook and eat "together", for example, or interact with our pets, or clean (etc etc) while talking, instead of having to awkwardly hold our devices up to our faces for long periods and/or sit in one place for a long time. I agree with these guys that it is a luxury device, though.

  4. @Jen In my family we’ve always used laptops, iPads and iPhones for this (we’re all in with Apple, so that makes it easy. I’m sure Apple (and everyone else) is working on the “follow you around the room” technology, and will incorporate into future releases. I think FB’s demise will make this device fail in the long (if not short) run.

  5. I worked in a leading 'interactive television' company back in the dark ages (1995-96). Most of what was actively designed then has made its way into current Over The Top (OTT) or Set Top Box (STB) offerings streaming on demand capabilities. The telecom engineers who owned the bandwidth could not understand why 'upstream' bandwidth greater than 64KB was needed. It was only for control, after all. :-) I told everyone I could that the killer app for interactive television was 'show grandma her grandkids'. It sounds like Facebook's Portal devices will fulfill that 'need' for a less technical audience. I am curious to know how the device handles less-than-optimal bandwidth, something that does not seem to be worrisome to these reviewers. To be fair, this is not something terribly easy to test without some effort...

  6. @Targott Yes, it might be tough to judge performance with less-than-optimal bandwidth if the tester's connections can't be controllably throttled. But it would have at least been nice to know what their unthrottled bandwidth was during this tryout.

  7. Consumer or commercial? I see this as having more commercial potential than consumer. I don't want one in my bedroom and you don't either so where? However, if I owned a small boutique on Main Street and I wanted to go home for lunch, I could use a pair of these to "manage" what goes on in the store in my absence. Or bosses could have a few of these to see what's going on in remote offices. Somehow, I think this is really the beginning of a new reality.

  8. The Picturephone Department at Bell Labs and Bellcore experimented with video portals. We discovered that in s corporate environments worker and even colleagues didn't like the always on aspect; whereas families didn't mind it; and couples were suspicious if the feature was turned off. We also discovered that the location of the unit was important. A busy informal location such as a kitchen was best because it encouraged more frequent and less formal interactions. The idea was to make video communications effortless by eliminating the need for users to push a button or go to a special place. We setup our portal between the coffee break rooms.

  9. @Alan Huang Thanks so much for commenting, Alan! This is a really cool thought. I feel like it was definitely more invasive having placed it on my bedroom desk. I could totally see my kitchen being much more comfortable of a location. That said, I'm limited by the box-sized real estate that living in San Francisco affords me.

  10. @Alan Huang "We setup our portal between the coffee break rooms." Why?

  11. @Alan Huang Very interesting and informative. When I worked in the former Bell System, we thought it would be cool to have a Picturephone, but were told by the bosses it would never happen in our time! Well, we're still here....

  12. At Bell Labs and Bellcore we also thought that video portals would be for eldercare situations. It would allow seniors to continue to feel connected to their family in an effortless way. Technically, this doesn't consume very much bandwidth (packets) because only the changes in the picture are transmitted. So if nothing moves in the picture then nothing will be sent.

  13. unfortunately the closed design means that anyone I want to vid with has to be on Facebook. That rules out all the B2B communications OR companies have to allow FB connections to the workplace. Firewall rules to block connection to Facebook.com are common. Great for capturing existing and attracting other FB users.

  14. I don't trust Facebook enough to have it on my phones anymore. I would never consider a piece of hardware made my them - I believe they are the enemy of mankind.

  15. Seen enough. Get out of this world ASAP!

  16. Nope. Don’t need it, won’t buy it. Never had a FB account. Never will. Why would you give FB all your personal information to monetize and sell? Why put a camera in your home that “follows you around the room”? It’s just creepy and weird.

  17. Not a chance. I don't love Big Brother.

  18. 1984, anyone? The Big Brother screens in that prescient novel were purchased by consumers and became tools of oppression and control over the population. Read the book! Buyer beware!

  19. An online review of a new video calling device that FAILS TO INCLUDE ANY ACTUAL VIDEO? And you could have at least mentioned what kind of residential internet bandwidth the testers had this hooked up to.

  20. Merely paranoid is not nearly paranoid enough. My activity online generates data. That data should belong to me, to be used as I agree. We need a new Constitutional right - a 'right of privacy' that would include making clear the ownership of our online data, as well as phone calls, junk mail, and make it clear to those who weaponize our information that the US will protect it. We pride ourselves on the US being a nation of ideals, and freedom-loving individuals, but when it comes to privacy Europe is way ahead of us.

  21. Mike .. thank you for the review. Is there an option to use the device without a Facebook account?

  22. Even if so, buying one would fund Zuckerberg Facebook's treason and creepiness, and just having one would very likely ensure they get to see what you capture on it. (Safe bet the firmware isn't free(-dom respecting) so we could be sure one way or another.) Why do that when so many other webcams, high-quality and (very much) otherwise, exist that don't let Facebook take a tithe of your money AND your life?

  23. I could see it, except for the limitation of only connecting FB users. And, of course, it wouldn't go in my bedroom or always be on.

  24. Sadly, I envision these creepy portals being installed, to great consternation of staff, in Grandad or Grandma's rooms at the nursing home more than I can see them being used in homes for more benign chatting across the miles. Welcome to Our brave new Orwellian world of high tech spying devices, masquerading as cutesy, gotta-have 'family friendly' hardware. Sigh.

  25. @RLC And why make the effort to visit the grandparents when you can invade their space digitally? Much more efficient! Plus it shows the grandkids that being spied on is just warm and cozy.

  26. This piece offered lots of snarky patter but very little information. So there are two models with different prices. How do they differ from each other? What kind of Internet speeds and latency do each of you have? How much of your bandwidth is used up by these always-on devices? Are the connections only one-to-one, or can more than two people participate? What happens to the tracking if multiple people are speaking at the same time, as happens in the real world? Let's put in a little more effort, guys.

  27. @Charlie B Hey Charlie. Sorry you feel that way! One thing i'd direct you to is our original news piece that has a lot more specific product information, which is linked to in the first sentence of the article. Read there if you want more nitty gritty specs!

  28. @Mike Isaa: Point taken. I assumed the link was to a FB product page rather than your reporting, and so didn't follow it. Perhaps the lede should have been phrased, "Facebook's new gadgets, Portal and Portal Plus, which *we reported on last week*..." so the link would have been clearer. Anyway, I've read your earlier piece, and I'm now 100% sure I would never let such a device into my home. Thanks for making that clear.

  29. @Mike Isaa: Charlie B's questions don't seem to be answered in the original news piece either. Could you answer them here?

  30. So the camera just relies on AI to track you? It seems like it won't be long until the much more functional (and less bound to Facebook) Echo Show and maybe ever the iPad comes up with the same thing.

  31. @Jake. I wonder if AI is impervious to duct tape on the camera lens?

  32. And so the incremental, iterative creep of the Orwellian overlords continues unchecked. As I am fond of telling my children, any personally invasive and compromising vignette you can conjure in your mind will most assuredly come to life at some point, somewhere in the real world. The proliferation of devices and technologies that purport to safeguard your privacy will inevitably provide the wherewithal to strip you of that privacy. Whether your most intimate moments are reduced to a sideshow for the gratification of a prying, prurient public, or your personal data is captured, quantified and monetized for the benefit of profit-seeking entities, no measure of good intentions by platforms like FB or carefulness by the users of those platforms will stop those intent on exploiting you from doing so. The question is this: is your need for instant, constant human communication so exigent that you are willing to accept the concomitant risk - indeed inevitability - that everything you say or do is on the public record? And even if you are prepared to expose yourself in that manner, what about your children or others who are unwittingly drawn into your own version of the Truman Show?

  33. I don't use Facebook and I'm surprised they are launching these kinds of products at this time, especially given all the negative attention around privacy they've been receiving of late. I'm genuinely interested to know who will buy this! On a related note, I encourage everyone to watch Frontline's documentary, "The Facebook Dilemma."

  34. Are there other video chat devices that follow the chatters around the room, maybe ones used for business? Or is this a first in all ways?

  35. The last thing I want in my bedroom is an always-on camera and microphone. Nor do I want a device limited to one function I would use only occasionally. I still value privacy. The one good thing I can say is that it is much sleeker than the vision-phone in the 1981 World's Fair, which was quite bulky and never commercially viable.

  36. @Barbara. The sleekier and smaller it is, the more sinister because you could forget it's there. I guess there's an OFF switch but who knows how that works? Unplugging sounds good.

  37. Why would anyone want an always-on, always connected video device in their bedroom? I mean, not only that, but there's software that follows your every motion. Is there no vestige of privacy left any longer? I read through the article regardless, but that point nearly stopped me dead in my tracks. And before everyone jumps on me, yes I'm aware that the Portal may be set up in any room of the house. It's just that these two chose to put it in their bedrooms. Ew.

  38. I have Apple's FaceTime. I don't need another limited use device taking up space and costing money.

  39. And how is this different from a FaceTime call courtesy of Apple? Why would I buy this if I already own an iPad?

  40. With Facebook's total disregard of its user's privacy, I question the sanity of anyone installing a Facebook video-calling device in their bedroom. Either that or they are exhibitionists.

  41. It really gives me the creeps from over here in Austria, how playful and – yes – quite naive this device has been reviewed. Also an Amazon Echo or such would never make it into my home or office. Probably because I am working in online marketing? ;) it's neat, but pointless, because what should be improved by having such a spider on the wall in people's life?

  42. Who would ever want something like this? Are we that afraid of being alone for some part of the day? Do we need to be connected to everyone we know 24/7? Are we not worried about the very serious privacy concerns Facebook is already guilty of introducing? I gotta believe Facebook is up to something they can monetize beyond the sale of the device. Are we that eager to get to "1984" and keep Orwell's big brother on out night stands? This is a product that harkens "backward" to a very dark future.

  43. Really cutesy article without a summary. so should i get these or not. that would have been helpful in either the beginning or end of the article. Also I agree with other comments - you both installed these in your bedrooms with all the concerns about privacy. a straight forward review would have been more appreciated

  44. Totally creeped out by these intrusive Facebook add-ons. Deleted Facebook the moment Mark Zuckerberg admitted storing information on everyone who was using his technology. No way...utterly appalling and Zuckerberg has zero credibility regarding the unethical manner in which he operates his business.

  45. I really want to let FB into my life even more.. said no one ever. Pass.

  46. Why would ANYONE EVER allow a camera associated with Facebook in their bedroom? With all of the privacy issues and sketchy decision making they have had? Don't be surprised if you get hacked or others can see you. You get what you deserve in this case

  47. Facebook is convincing you to put an advertising delivery system directly in your home that will have the ability to send you audio-visual ads 24/7/365.25. You will now get robocalls in your bedroom at night, while drifting off to sleep, trying to sell you anything you have clicked on ever. Remember, Facebook isn't really free, it has ALWAYS been a data mining tool for advertisers. You can leave your cell in the bottom of your purse or your tablet between the sofa cushions but this thing needs a useful. permanent place. Sure, the camera 'follows' you but the hardware is fixed. Sorry, not for me.

  48. @pat. What a horrible thought! Robocalls on cell phones and landlines are bad enough...but this? It's definitely not for me and the same for wiring my home with cameras for remote viewing, as if those can't be hacked! Just send out invitations to burglars etc.

  49. Who's the smartest of them all, but was never invited to the smart home party? Might arrive with a poison Apple? Yer right - and 200 million legacy iPads may soon take over as our kitchen concierge, responsibly. The FB Portal was preceded by the Poort www.poortals.com that it egregiously copies, adding only surveillance AI, which is at best farcical. Design will have its day, and the iPad its delightful revenge.

  50. Who is the market for this?! I feel like i'm falling further and further out of the mainstream. Many commenters here, like me, can't stand the idea of having a google home or echo in their living space and I don't really understand how so many millions of people not only tolerate it but pay for it. Heck, I'd go back to pre-cell phone reality if I thought i could still have friends and a job.

  51. @Big Cow I'm with you totally on this! When I had to upgrade my iPhone (out of memory due to being an older model---another problem with technology!) I immediately deactivated SIRI. The voice gets on my nerves and I don't want a robot telling me what to do. As a retiree of the Bell System, I feel I've been put up for adoption!

  52. Even though it can be turned off, did it come with a suitable-for-framing wall poster, "Big Brother Is Watching You"? Just curious.

  53. Is this just another iteration of Alexa?

  54. What a waste of time. Facebook should be put out of business. Twitter as well. These are just useless things.

  55. Between the NSA, strong assistance by AT&T and all the other phone companies that buy unused capacity from AT&T when traffic is heavy, google, facebook, companies selling services such as NSO Group, Alphonso software we have very little privacy anymore. The federal government is broken and Congress no longer acts as a reliable check on illegal actions or overreach of power by the executive branch. It's all conducive in creating a crucial element needed for a swift transition to fascism.

  56. Hello 1984.

  57. Does it require specific wifi speed? also, does it come with a built-in VPN? In Oman, we almost have all free chatting apps (videos and calls) are useless without VPN including Skype, WhatsApp. and I wonder if it's the same for such devices.

  58. So it’s a webcam... I still use mine from 1995. Works great. “AI software” is a gimmick. These algorithms have been around for decades.

  59. Supporting a company that is helping destroy the civic fabric of our nation is anathema to me, regardless of how potentially useful a device may be.

  60. I don’t see the need for it, plus everyone apparently needs to have it to use it, plus what about using it for non-Facebook calls/users. Seems like a gimmick to me

  61. I've never used Facebook and I don't know why I would.

  62. Facebook has nothing to do with Friends, Faces or Books. Get off it now.