Facebook Portal adds games and web browser amidst mediocre Amazon reviews

After receiving a flogging from privacy critics, Facebook is scrambling to make its smart display video chat screen Portal more attractive to buyers. Today Facebook is announcing the addition a of a web browser, plus some of Messenger’s Instant Games like Battleship, Draw Something, Sudoku, and Words With Friends. ABC News and CNN are adding […]

After receiving a flogging from privacy critics, Facebook is scrambling to make its smart display video chat screen Portal more attractive to buyers. Today Facebook is announcing the addition a of a web browser, plus some of Messenger’s Instant Games like Battleship, Draw Something, Sudoku, and Words With Friends. ABC News and CNN are adding content to Portal, which now also has a manual zoom mode for its auto-zooming smart camera so you can zero in on a particular thing in view. Facebook has also added new augmented reality Story Time tales, seasonal AR masks, in-call music sharing through iHeartRadio beyond Spotify and Pandora that already offer it, and nickname calling so you can say “Hey Portal, call Mom.”

But the question remains who’s buying? Facebook is already discounting the 10-inch screen Portal and 15-inch Portal+. Formerly $100 off if you buy two, Facebook is still offering $50 off just one until Christmas Eve as part of a suspiciously long Black Friday Sale. That doesn’t signal this thing is flying off the shelves. We don’t have sales figures, but Portal has a 3.4 rating on Amazon while Portal+ has a 3.6 — both trailing the 4.2 rating of Amazon’s own Echo Shows 2. Users are griping about the lack of Amazon Video support for Ring doorbells, not receiving calls, and of course the privacy implications.

Personally, I’ve found Portal+ to be competent in the five weeks since launch. The big screen is great as a smart photo frame and video calls look great. But Alexa and Facebook’s own voice assistant have a tough time dividing up functionality, and sometimes I can’t get either to play a specific song on Spotify, pause or change volume, or other activities my Google Home has no trouble with. Facebook said it was hoping to add Google Assistant to Portal but there’s no progress on that front yet.

The browser will be a welcome addition, and allow Facebook to sidestep some of the issues around its thin app platform. While it recently added a Smart TV version of YouTube, now users can access lots of services without those developers having to commit to building something for Portal given its uncertain future.

The hope seems to be that mainstream users who aren’t glued to the tech press where Facebook is constantly skewered might be drawn in by these device’s flashy screens and the admittedly impressive auto-zooming camera. But to overcome the brand tax levied by all of Facebook’s privacy scandals, Portal must be near perfect. Without the native apps for popular video providers like Netflix and Hulu, consistent voice recognition, and more unique features missing from competing smart displays, the fear of Facebook’s surveillance may be outweighing people’s love for shiny new gadgets.

 

Instagram launches walkie-talkie voice messaging

You’d think Facebook would be faster at copying itself. Five years after Facebook Messenger took a cue from WhatsApp and Voxer to launch voice messaging, and four months after TechCrunch reported Instagram was testing its own walkie talkie feature, voice messaging is rolling out globally on Instagram Direct today. Users can hold down the microphone […]

You’d think Facebook would be faster at copying itself. Five years after Facebook Messenger took a cue from WhatsApp and Voxer to launch voice messaging, and four months after TechCrunch reported Instagram was testing its own walkie talkie feature, voice messaging is rolling out globally on Instagram Direct today.

Users can hold down the microphone button to record a short voice message that appears in the chat as an audio wave form that recipients can then listen to at their leisure.  Voice messages are up to one-minute long, stay permanently listenable rather than disappearing, and work in one-on-one and group chats on iOS and Android. The feature offers an off-camera asynchronous alternative to the video calling feature Instagram released in June. It will have to compete with Viber, Zello, and Telegram as well as Facebook Messenger and WhatsApp for the use case.

Hands-free Direct messaging could make Instagram a more appealing chat app for drivers, people on the move with their hands full, or users in the developing world who want a more intimate connection without having to pay for the data for long audio or video calls. It could also be a win for users in countries with less popular languages or ones that aren’t easily compatible with smartphone keyboards, as they could talk to friends instead of typing.

The launch deepens Facebook’s entry into the voice market. From its first voice messaging and VOIP features back in 2013 to its new voice control system Aloha that works on its recently launched Portal video chat screen, Facebook has long taken an interest in the accessibility of voice but only got serious about building it across its products in 2018. Along with Instagram video calling, today launch raises the question of whether Portal and Instagram will team up. That could make Portal more useful…but also risks making Instagram less cool by tightening its ties to Facebook.

Facebook Portal needs more. At least it just added YouTube

To offset the creepiness of having Facebook’s camera and microphone in your house, its new Portal video chat gadget needs best-in-class software.  Its hardware is remarkably well done, plus Messenger and the photo frame feature work great. But its third-party app platform was pretty skimpy when the device launched this week. Facebook is increasingly relying […]

To offset the creepiness of having Facebook’s camera and microphone in your house, its new Portal video chat gadget needs best-in-class software.  Its hardware is remarkably well done, plus Messenger and the photo frame feature work great. But its third-party app platform was pretty skimpy when the device launched this week.

Facebook is increasingly relying on its smart display competitors to boost Portal’s capabilities. It already comes with Amazon Alexa inside. And now, Google’s YouTube is part of the Portal app platform. “Yes, YouTube.com is available through an optional install in the ‘Portal Apps’ catalog” a Facebook spokesperson tells me. You can open it with a “Hey Portal” command, but there currently seems to be no way to queue up specific videos or control playback via voice.

The addition gives Portal much greater flexibility when it comes to video. Previously it could only play videos from Facebook Watch, Food Network, or Newsy. It also brings the device to closer parity with Google’s Home Hub screen, the Google Assistant-powered smart displays from JBL and Lenovo, and the Amazon Echo Show 2 which Google blocked from using YouTube before Amazon added a web browser to the device to reopen YouTube access.

Read our comparison of the top smart display gadgets

YouTube makes the most of the $349 Portal+’s 15.6-inch 1080p screen, the biggest and sharpest of the smart display crop. Whether for watching shows or recipe videos while making dinner, instructional clips while putting together furniture, or Baby Shark to keep the kids busy, Portal becomes a lot more useful with YouTube.

But we’re still waiting for the most exciting thing Facebook has planned for Portal: Google Assistant. A month ago Facebook’s VP of Portal Rafa Camargo told me We definitely have been talking to Google as well. We view the future of these home devices . . . as where you will have multiple assistants and you will use them for whatever they do best . . . We’d like to expand and integrate with them.” Now a Facebook spokesperson tells me that they “Don’t have an update on Google Assistant today but we’re working on adding new experiences to Portal.”

The potential to put both Google and Amazon’s voice assistants on one device could make Portal’s software stronger than either competitor’s devices. Many critics have asked if Facebook was naive or calloused to launch Portal in the wak of privacy issues like the Cambridge Analytica scandal and its recent data breach. But as I found when testing the Portal with my 72-year-old mother, not everyone is concerned with Facebook’s privacy problems and instead see Portal as a way for the social network to truly bring them closer to their loved ones. With Amazon and Google racing to win the smart display market, Facebook may see it worth the tech insider backlash to have a shot at mainstream success before its boxed out.

Facebook Portal isn’t listening to your calls, but may track data

When the initial buzz of Portal finally dies down, it’s the timing that will be remembered most. There’s never a great time for a company like Facebook to launch a product like Portal, but as far as optics go, the whole of 2018 probably should have been a write-off. Our followup headline, “Facebook, are you […]

When the initial buzz of Portal finally dies down, it’s the timing that will be remembered most. There’s never a great time for a company like Facebook to launch a product like Portal, but as far as optics go, the whole of 2018 probably should have been a write-off.

Our followup headline, “Facebook, are you kidding?” seems to sum up the fallout nicely.

But the company soldiered on, intent to launch its in-house hardware product, and insofar as its intentions can be regarded as pure, there are certainly worse motives than the goal of connecting loved ones. That’s a promise video chat technology brings, and Facebook’s technology stack delivers it in a compelling way.

Any praise the company might have received for the product’s execution, however, quickly took a backseat to another PR dustup. Here’s Recode with another fairly straightforward headline. “It turns out that Facebook could in fact use data collected from its Portal in-home video device to target you with ads.”

In a conversation with TechCrunch this week, Facebook exec Andrew “Boz” Bosworth claims it was the result of a misunderstanding on the company’s part.

“I wasn’t in the room with that,” Bosworth says, “but what I’m told was that we thought that the question was about ads being served on Portal. Right now, Facebook ads aren’t being served on Portal. Obviously, if some other service, like YouTube or something else, is using ads, and you’re watching that you’ll have ads on the Portal device. Facebook’s been serving ads on Portal.”

Facebook is working to draw a line here, looking to distinguish the big ask of putting its own microphones and a camera in consumer living rooms from the standard sort of data collection that forms the core of much of the site’s monetization model.

“[T]he thing that’s novel about this device is the camera and the microphone,” he explains. “That’s a place that we’ve gone overboard on the security and privacy to make sure consumers can trust at the electrical level the device is doing only the things that they expect.”

Facebook was clearly working to nip these questions in the bud prior to launch. Unprompted, the company was quick to list the many levels of security and privacy baked into the stack, from encryption to an actual physical piece of plastic the consumer can snap onto the top of the device to serve as a lens cap.

Last night, alongside the announcement of availability, Facebook issued a separate post drilling down on privacy concerns. Portal: Privacy and Ads details three key points:

  • Facebook does not listen to, view or keep the contents of your Portal video calls. This means nothing you say on a Portal video call is accessed by Facebook or used for advertising.
  • Portal video calls are encrypted, so your calls are secure.
  • Smart Camera and Smart Sound use AI technology that runs locally on Portal, not on Facebook servers. Portal’s camera doesn’t identify who you are.

Facebook is quick to explain that, in spite of what it deemed a misunderstanding, it hasn’t switched approaches since we spoke ahead of launch. But none of this is to say, of course, that the device won’t be collecting data that can be used to target other ads. That’s what Facebook does.

“I can be quite definitive about the camera and the microphone, and content of audio or content of video and say none of those things are being used to inform ads, full stop,” the executive tells TechCrunch. “I can be very, very confident when I make that statement.”

However, he adds, “Once you get past the camera and the microphones, this device functions a lot like other mobile devices that you have. In fact, it’s powered by Messenger, and in other spaces it’s powered by Facebook. All the same properties that a billion-plus people that are using Messenger are used to are the same as what’s happening on the device.”

As a hypothetical, Bosworth points to the potential for cross-platform ads targeting video calling for those who do it frequently — a classification, one imagines, that would apply to anyone who spends $199 on a video chat device of this nature. “If you were somebody who frequently use video calls,” Bosworth begins, “maybe there would be an ad-targeting cluster, for people who were interested in video calling. You would be a part of that. That’s true if you were using video calling often on your mobile phone or if you were using video calling often on Portal.”

Facebook may have painted itself into a corner with this one, however. Try as it might to draw the distinction between cameras/microphones and the rest of the software stack, there’s little doubt that trust has been eroded after months of talk around major news stories like Cambridge Analytica. Once that notion of trust has been breached, it’s a big lift to ask users to suddenly purchase a piece of standalone hardware they didn’t realize they needed a few months back.

“Certainly, the headwinds that we face in terms of making sure consumers trust the brand are ones that we’re all familiar with and, frankly, up to the challenge for,” says Bosworth. “It’s good to have extra scrutiny. We’ve been through a tremendous transformation inside the company over the last six to eight months to try to focus on those challenges.”

The executive believes, in fact, that the introduction of a device like Portal could actually serve to counteract that distrust, rather than exacerbate it.

“This device is exactly what I think people want from Facebook,” he explains. “It is a device focused on their closest friends and family, and the experiences, and the connections they have with those people. On one hand, I hear you. It’s a headwind. On the other hand, it’s exactly what we need. It is actually the right device that tells a story that I think we want people to hear about, what we care about the most, which is the people getting deeper and more meaningful hashes of one another.”

If Portal is ultimately a success, however, it won’t be because the product served to convince people that the company is more focused on meaningful interactions versus ad sales before. It will be because our memories are short. These sorts of concerns fade pretty quickly in the face of new products, particularly in a 24-hour news environment when basically everything is bad all the time.

The question then becomes whether Portal can offer enough of a meaningful distinction from other products to compel users to buy in. Certainly the company has helped jumpstart this with what are ultimately reasonably priced products. But even with clever augmented reality features and some well-produced camera tracking, Facebook needs to truly distinguish this device from an Echo Show or Google Home Hub.
Facebook’s early goal for the product are likely fairly modest. In conversations ahead of launch, the company has positioned this as a kind of learning moment. That began when the company seeded early versions of the products into homes as part of a private beta, and continues to some degree now that the device is out in the world. When pressed, the company wouldn’t offer up anything concrete.

“This is the first Facebook-branded hardware,” says Bosworth. “It’s early. I don’t know that we have any specific sales expectations so much as what we have is an expectation to have a market that’s big enough that we can learn, and iterate, and get better.”

This is true, certainly — and among my biggest complaints with the device. Aside from the aforementioned video chat functionality, the Portal doesn’t feel like a particularly fleshed-out device. There’s an extremely limited selection of apps pre-loaded and no app store. Video beyond the shorts offered up through Facebook is a big maybe for the time being.

During my review of the Portal+, I couldn’t shake the feeling that the product would have functioned as well — or even better, perhaps — as an add-on to or joint production with Amazon. However, that partnership is limited only to the inclusion of Alexa on the device. In fact, the company confirms that we can expect additional hardware devices over the next couple of years.

As it stands, Facebook says it’s open to a broad spectrum of possibilities, based on consumer demand. It’s something that could even, potentially, expand to on-device record, a feature that would further blur the lines of what the on-board camera and microphone can and should do.

“Right now, there’s no recording possible on the device,” Bosworth says. “The idea that a camera with microphones, people may want to use it like a camera with microphones to record things. We wanted to start in a position where people felt like they could understand what the device was, and have a lot of confidence and trust, and bring it home. There’s an obvious area where you can expand it. There’s also probably areas that are not obvious to us […] It’s not at all fair to say that this is any kind of a beta period. We only decided to ship it when we felt like we had crossed over into full finished product territory.”

From a privacy perspective, these things always feel like a death by a million cuts. For now, however, the company isn’t recording anything locally and has no definitive plans to do so. Given the sort of year the company has been having with regards to optics around privacy, it’s probably best to keep it that way.

Facebook Portal+ review

The Portal is a head scratcher. It’s a chat app that manifested itself into a hardware through sheer force of will. The first commercially available product from Building 8 isn’t as instantly iconic a piece of hardware as Snap’s Spectacles. In fact, at first glance, the device seems like little more than an Echo Show/Google […]

The Portal is a head scratcher. It’s a chat app that manifested itself into a hardware through sheer force of will. The first commercially available product from Building 8 isn’t as instantly iconic a piece of hardware as Snap’s Spectacles. In fact, at first glance, the device seems like little more than an Echo Show/Google Home Hub competitor.

And then there’s the matter of timing. In a meeting with TechCrunch ahead of launch, Facebook’s hardware team was quick to list the various ways the company is proactively protecting user privacy, from a camera button to a physical lens cap. The social media giant has always been a lighting rod for these issues, but 2018 has been particularly tough, for reasons summed up well in Taylor’s simply titled post, “Facebook, are you kidding?

What’s most peculiar, however, is in this age of multi-tasking devices, the Facebook Portal and Portal+ are devices that are designed to do one thing really well. Rather than pushing to develop a true Echo competitor, Facebook’s first ground-up piece of hardware is essentially a teleconferencing device for friends and family.

It is, in the product’s defense, one wrapped in solid hardware design with some clever choices throughout. If the Portal ultimately winds up lining the thrift store shelves of history, it won’t be due to choices Facebook made to serve its core competency.

Rather, it will be due to the fact that the product team has neglected some other features in the name of focusing on video chat — a feature that’s got no shortage of delivery devices. Facebook told me that Portal’s other features will be updated based on user feedback — almost as if the company is unsure what, precisely, customers would want from such a device outside of video chat.

The timing of the device is certainly telling. Facebook is clearly banking on selling a lot of Portals for the holidays. You can practically see the ads playing out, as some melancholy voice sings the beginning strains of “I’ll Be Home for Christmas.” The first spot isn’t as on the nose, but similar heart-strings are tugged, as evidenced by the “Feel There” title. That’s Facebook’s pitch in a nutshell: We know it sucks you can’t be with your nieces and nephews or elderly parents right now, but hopefully this screen will do the trick.

From a hardware design perspective standpoint, I’m on board. The smaller Portal looks quite a bit like Lenovo’s Google Assistant-powered Smart Display, albeit with the different speaker placement. I’m into it. Lenovo’s device is probably the best-looking smart screen around, and the Portal is an identical cousin with a slightly different haircut.

The Portal+ — the model that’s been hanging on my office desk for a few days now — is the more innovative of the two products from an industrial design perspective. It is, essentially, an ultra-wide 15.6-inch tablet mounted atop a tall, thin base. The display is connected to the base via a joint that allows it to swivel smoothly between portrait and landscape mode.

The screen is 1080p — plenty good for video chat, and a big step up from the Echo Show and (especially) Google Home Hub. Of course, the large footprint means it’s going to be tough for those in smaller spaces to find an ideal spot (says the guy living in a one-bedroom apartment in New York City). At present, it’s sitting atop my AirPort router.

The all-important camera is positioned an inch above the screen, like an unblinking eye of Sauron. The 12-megapixel camera can do 5x zoom and capture movement within a 140-degree range. The four-mic array flanks the lens on either side, doing double duty of listening to commands and noise canceling during chats.

Along the narrow top ridge are three inductive buttons — two volume, one to turn off the camera and mic. When you hit that last one, a notification will pop up on screen, and a small red light will illuminate just to the right of the camera, for added assurance. As an extra measure, Facebook also tossed in a plastic clip to physically cover the camera.

I found myself making a point to keep the lens cap on the majority of the time when I was using the device to chat. When I was talking to someone, I slipped it to the side, but kept it clipped on the base. The little piece of plastic is pretty easily lost. If Facebook does end up making another one of these, a mechanical lens cap like the kind you find on a point and shoot camera is probably the way to go.

The button placement is a bit of a shit show. The way I have the Portal+ set up on my desk, the buttons are above eye-level. Makes sense, you want the display right around your face, you know, to look at it. This means when I want to, say, change the volume, I find myself fiddling in the dark for them. Given that they’ve got no tactility, I invariably end up hitting the wrong one, more often than not jacking up the volume in the process.

Similarly, I often end up hitting a button or two when attempting to clip on the lens cap. Next time out, Facebook needs to either go with physical buttons or find a better spot to place them — tough, I know, given the odd shape of the thing.

The screen placement ensures that the display doesn’t obscure the camera in either portrait or landscape — though when swiveling, the corners do eclipse the shot. When in portrait, the bottom of the display does block roughly half of the bottom speaker. This is a bit of a design flaw, though surprisingly, it doesn’t dampen the sound as much as I’d initially expected. That said, when you’re using the device to listen to music, keep it in landscape mode. In fact, I found myself keeping it that way the majority of the time I was using it, regardless.

The sound quality on the thing is decent. I haven’t had a chance to put it up against the standard Portal, but the deluxe version sports a more complex speaker array — 20w (2 tweeters, single 4-inch bass) versus 10w (2 full-range drivers). Like all of these smart displays, I’m not going to recommend this as your default home stereo, but I’ve been using it to listen to Spotify all day, and have been largely enjoying the experience.

The Portal’s interface is an extremely bare-bones experience. The UI flips between two primary cards. The primary is, naturally, a list of your Facebook contacts. Up top are the six you most regularly chat with, and below are your hand-picked favorites. One of the nice bits here is that the people you speak with don’t actually need a Portal to talk. They can chat with you on their phone or computer.

Swipe left and you get a screen full of large icons. From here you can click into Facebook videos or pick from your Portal apps — Food Network, iHeartRadio, Newsy, Pandora and Spotify by default.

Click into the apps icon and you’ll find that that’s really all there is for Portal apps at the moment. Thin soup doesn’t really begin to describe it. It’s a decent enough starting point, but honestly, Facebook doesn’t seem particularly interested in courting more developers or opening up the API to all comers. Again, the company is taking a very wait and see approach to just about everything here.

Still, Portal does bring some interesting innovation to video chat. To trigger the function, say “Hey Portal” and then “call [enter name here].” Simple enough. Though the actual “Hey Portal” features are essentially limited to things like making calls and putting the unit to sleep. Anything beyond that and poor Portal gets confused. Even something like “Hey Portal, turn off camera” is met with an “I can’t do that yet” in Portal’s uneven speech pattern.

For everything else, Portal defaults to Alexa — functionality you can add during the setup process. That the system relies on Amazon’s smart assistant to do much of the heavy lifting here further makes one wonder why Facebook expects users to adopt its product over the Echo.

Portal’s greatest trick is its automatic zooming and panning. Using built-in AI, the system automatically tracks users and follows them around the frame. So you can, say, cook dinner while chatting and Portal will be with you the whole way. The camera will also pan in and out as additional people enter and leave the room, keeping them all in frame. While chatting with Sarah Perez (who was using the standard Portal on the other end), the camera even zoomed in on her dog when she left the room for a moment.

The zooming is smooth and the effect is impressive, owing in part to the fact that the team worked with a Hollywood cinematographer to help polish its execution. By default it moves a bit too much for my liking, slowly zooming in and out in a way that can may you low-level seasick — though you can adjust the sensitivity in settings.

My second favorite part in video chat is the ability to share songs via Spotify, Pandora and iHeartMusic. When I start playing something on my end, Sarah hears it, too. And we can both adjust our individual volumes. You can also pair the system to Bluetooth speakers or headphones, if that’s more to your liking.

This being Facebook, the system comes equipped with AR-style photo filters — 15 in all (with more coming, no doubt). You can turn yourself into a werewolf, add a disco ball — you know, the usual. They do a good job tracking your movements and add an extra little dimension of fun to the system.

Story time is another fun feature for those Portaling with young children. On your side, you’ll see a teleprompter with a story — on theirs, it’s you embedded inside an AR storybook like the Three Pigs. There are only a few stories at launch, but then most kids enjoy repetition, right?

Like the Home Hub, Portal defaults to a makeshift digital picture frame when not in use. Naturally, it defaults to photos and videos from your Facebook feed. As someone who doesn’t really use Facebook to put my life on display, the Superframe feature wasn’t really by bag, though the ability to display info like the weather and reminders of things like friends’ birthdays was nice.

Above all, Portal is a bit of a one-hit wonder. Admittedly, it does that one thing (video chat) fairly well, and at $200 for the Portal and $349 for the Portal+, it’s certainly priced competitively (and in spite of Facebook’s insistence otherwise, may be a bit of a loss leader). But it’s a hard sell compared to more well-rounded devices like the Echo Show and Google Home Hub.

And, of course, there’s all the privacy baggage that inviting Facebook into your home entails. Between the camera/speaker disabling button, lens cap, localized AI and the promise not to eavesdrop or spy, Facebook has gone out of its way to ensure users that it’s not using the device as a portal into your own privacy. But given the kind of year the company’s been having, for many potential buyers not even all of that is likely to be enough.

There’s a default screen saver on the device that asks “Hey Portal, what can you do?” It’s meant, of course, to prompt you to click through and discover new features. But it’s an important question — and in its current iteration, it’s not one for which Portal is able to offer a particularly compelling answer.

Facebook is building a camera TV set-top box codenamed Ripley

A mysterious product called “Ripley” appeared hidden beside Facebook’s new Portal smart displays in Facebook for Android’s code. Dug up by frequent TechCrunch tipster Jane Manchun Wong a week ago, Ripley’s name squared with Facebook’s VP of Portal Rafa Camargo telling us that “we’re already investing in expanding the product line with more products we want […]

A mysterious product called “Ripley” appeared hidden beside Facebook’s new Portal smart displays in Facebook for Android’s code. Dug up by frequent TechCrunch tipster Jane Manchun Wong a week ago, Ripley’s name squared with Facebook’s VP of Portal Rafa Camargo telling us that “we’re already investing in expanding the product line with more products we want to launch next year.”

That Facebook device will be a camera-equipped device that connects to televisions to allow video chat and media content viewing, according to Cheddar’s Alex Heath.

Facebook’s Portal’s devices sit on a desk or countertop and cost $199 for a smaller screen and $349 for a bigger one. But with Ripley, Facebook could sell a much cheaper screen-less add-on for the televisions people already have. Facebook could build hardware network effect by releasing its Portal technology in many form factors.

The Ripley name could change before the eventual launch next year, which Cheddar says is coming in Spring 2019. It might become something more evocative of the device’s purpose. But regardless of the name, it’s sure to encounter heavy skepticism due to Facebook’s history of privacy and security troubles. Many users don’t trust Facebook enough to put one of its cameras and microphones in their house.

Ripley is said to run on the same Portal operating system that builds off the same Android open-source framework. That means it might carry a similar slate of features. Those include Portal’s auto-zooming camera that can follow users to keep them in frame, video chat through Messenger, a smart photo frame for while it’s not in use, Facebook Watch videos, Alexa voice control and a third-party app platform, including video content from outside developers.

While users might occasionally watch recipe or news videos on Portal, entertainment could be core to Ripley. The device would allow Facebook to compete with Roku, Amazon, Apple and other set-top boxes. The device could also eventually be a natural home for Facebook’s video ads, even though it’s not putting them on Portal right now.

Along with smart speakers, whoever creates what plugs into our TVs will control a fundamental wing of future home computing. Facebook won’t surrender this market, despite its disadvantage due to its many scandals.

Facebook is building a camera TV set-top box codenamed Ripley

A mysterious product called “Ripley” appeared hidden beside Facebook’s new Portal smart displays in Facebook for Android’s code. Dug up by frequent TechCrunch tipster Jane Manchun Wong a week ago, Ripley’s name squared with Facebook’s VP of Portal Rafa Camargo telling us that “we’re already investing in expanding the product line with more products we want […]

A mysterious product called “Ripley” appeared hidden beside Facebook’s new Portal smart displays in Facebook for Android’s code. Dug up by frequent TechCrunch tipster Jane Manchun Wong a week ago, Ripley’s name squared with Facebook’s VP of Portal Rafa Camargo telling us that “we’re already investing in expanding the product line with more products we want to launch next year.”

That Facebook device will be a camera-equipped device that connects to televisions to allow video chat and media content viewing, according to Cheddar’s Alex Heath.

Facebook’s Portal’s devices sit on a desk or countertop and cost $199 for a smaller screen and $349 for a bigger one. But with Ripley, Facebook could sell a much cheaper screen-less add-on for the televisions people already have. Facebook could build hardware network effect by releasing its Portal technology in many form factors.

The Ripley name could change before the eventual launch next year, which Cheddar says is coming in Spring 2019. It might become something more evocative of the device’s purpose. But regardless of the name, it’s sure to encounter heavy skepticism due to Facebook’s history of privacy and security troubles. Many users don’t trust Facebook enough to put one of its cameras and microphones in their house.

Ripley is said to run on the same Portal operating system that builds off the same Android open-source framework. That means it might carry a similar slate of features. Those include Portal’s auto-zooming camera that can follow users to keep them in frame, video chat through Messenger, a smart photo frame for while it’s not in use, Facebook Watch videos, Alexa voice control and a third-party app platform, including video content from outside developers.

While users might occasionally watch recipe or news videos on Portal, entertainment could be core to Ripley. The device would allow Facebook to compete with Roku, Amazon, Apple and other set-top boxes. The device could also eventually be a natural home for Facebook’s video ads, even though it’s not putting them on Portal right now.

Along with smart speakers, whoever creates what plugs into our TVs will control a fundamental wing of future home computing. Facebook won’t surrender this market, despite its disadvantage due to its many scandals.

Comparing Google Home Hub vs Amazon Echo Show 2 vs Facebook Portal

The war for the countertop has begun. Google, Amazon, and Facebook all revealed their new smart displays this month. Each hopes to become the center of your internet of things-equipped home and a window to your loved ones. The $149 Google Home Hub is  cheap and privacy-safe smart home controller. The $229 Amazon Echo Show […]

The war for the countertop has begun. Google, Amazon, and Facebook all revealed their new smart displays this month. Each hopes to become the center of your internet of things-equipped home and a window to your loved ones. The $149 Google Home Hub is  cheap and privacy-safe smart home controller. The $229 Amazon Echo Show 2 gives Alexa a visual complement. And the $199 Facebook Portal and $349 Portal+ offer a Smart Lens that automatically zooms in and out to keep you in frame while you video chat.

For consumers, the biggest questions to consider are how much you care about privacy, whether you really video chat, which smart home ecosystem you’re building around, and how much you want to spend.

  • For the privacy obsessed, Google’s Home Hub is the only one without a camera and it’s dirt cheap at $149.
  • For the privacy agnostic, Facebook’s Portal+ offers the best screen and video chat functionality
  • For the chatty, Amazon Echo Show 2 can do message and video chat over Alexa, call phone numbers, and is adding Skype

If you want to go off-brand, there’s also the Lenovo Smart Display with stylish hardware in a $249 10-inch 1080p version and a $199 8-inch 720p version. And for the audiophile, there’s the $199 JBL Link View. While those hit the market earlier than the platform-owned versions we’re reviewing here, they’re not likely to benefit from the constant iteration Google, Amazon, and Facebook are working on for their tabletop screens.

Here’s a comparison of the top smart displays, including their hardware specs, unique software, killer features, and pros and cons:

Facebook Portal And Portal+ Announced To Compete With Amazon Echo Show

Facebook has just announced the Portal and Portal+ Alexa-powered devices to compete with the Amazon Echo Show. Here’s everything you need to know. [ Continue reading this over at RedmondPie.com ]

Facebook has just announced the Portal and Portal+ Alexa-powered devices to compete with the Amazon Echo Show. Here's everything you need to know.


[ Continue reading this over at RedmondPie.com ]

Say “Aloha”: A closer look at Facebook’s voice ambitions

Facebook has been a bit slow to adopt the voice computing revolution. It has no voice assistant, its smart speaker is still in development, and some apps like Instagram aren’t full equipped for audio communication. But much of that is set to change judging by experiments discovered in Facebook’s code, plus new patent filings. Developing […]

Facebook has been a bit slow to adopt the voice computing revolution. It has no voice assistant, its smart speaker is still in development, and some apps like Instagram aren’t full equipped for audio communication. But much of that is set to change judging by experiments discovered in Facebook’s code, plus new patent filings.

Developing voice functionality could give people more ways to use Facebook in their home or on the go. Its forthcoming Portal smart speaker is reportedly designed for easy video chatting with distant family, including seniors and kids that might have trouble with phones. Improved transcription and speech-to-text-to-speech features could connect Messenger users across input mediums and keep them on the chat app rather than straying back to SMS.

But Facebook’s voice could be drowned out by the din of the crowd if it doesn’t get moving soon. All the major mobile hardware and operating system makers now have their own voice assistants like Siri, Alexa, Google Assistant, and Samsung Bixby, as well as their own smart speakers. In Q2 2018, Canalys estimates that Google shipped 5.4 million Homes, and Amazon shipped 4.1 million Echoes. Apple’s HomePod is off to a slow start with less than 6 percent of the market, behind Alibaba’s smart speaker according to Strategy Analytics. Facebook’s spotty record around privacy might deflect potential customers to its competitors.

Given Facebook is late to the game, it will need to arrive with powerful utility that solves real problems. Here’s a look at Facebook’s newest developments in the voice space, and how its past experiments lay the groundwork for its next big push.

Aloha Voice

Facebook is developing its own speech recognition feature under the name Aloha for both the Facebook and Messenger apps, as well as external hardware — likely the video chat smart speaker it’s developing. Code inside the Facebook and Messenger Android apps dug up by frequent TechCrunch tipster and mobile researcher Jane Manchun Wong gives the first look at a prototype for the Aloha user interface.

Labeled “Aloha Voice Testing”, as a user speaks while in a message thread, a horizontal blue bar expands and contracts to visualize the volume of speech while recognizing and transcribing into text. The code describes the feature as having connections with external WiFi or Bluetooth devices. It’s possible that the software will run on both Facebook’s hardware and software, similar to Google Assistant that runs both on phones and Google Home speakers.

Facebook declined to comment on the video, with its spokesperson Ha Thai telling me “We test stuff all the time – nothing to share today but my team will be in touch in a few weeks about hardware news coming from the AR/VR org.” It unclear if that hardware news will focus on voice and Aloha or portal, or if it’s merely related to Facebook’s Oculus Connect 5 conference on September 25th.

A source previously told me that years ago, Facebook was interested in developing its own speech recognition software designed specifically to accurately transcribe how friends talk to each other. These speech patterns are often more casual, colloquial, rapid, and full of slang than the way we formally address computerized assistants like Amazon Alexa or Google Home.

Wong also found the Aloha logo buried in Facebook’s code, which features volcano imagery. I can confirm that I’ve seen a Facebook Aloha Setup chatbot with a similar logo on the phones of Facebook employees.

If Facebook can figure this out, it could offer its own transcription features in Messenger and elsewhere on the site so users could communicate across mediums. It could potentially let you dictate comments or messages to friends while you have your hands full or can’t look at your screen. The recipient could then read the text instead of having to listen to it like a voice message. The feature could also be used to power voice navigation of Facebook’s apps for better hands-free usage.

Speaker And Camera Patents

Facebook awarded patent for speaker

Facebook’s video chat smart speaker was reportedly codenamed Aloha originally but later renamed Portal, Alex Heath of Business Insider and now Cheddar first reported in August 2017. The $499 competitor to the Amazon Echo Show was initially set to launch at Facebook’s F8 in May, but Bloomberg reported it was pushed back amid concerns that it would exacerbate the privacy scandal ignited by Cambridge Analytica.

A new patent filing reveals Facebook was considering building a smart speaker as early as December 26th, 2016 when it filed a patent for a cube-shaped device. The patent diagrams an “ornamental design for a speaker device” invented by Baback Elmieh, Alexandre Jais, and John Proksch-Whaley. Facebook had acquired Elmieh’s startup Nascent Objects in September of that year and he’s now a technical project lead at Facebook’s secretive Building 8 hardware lab.

The startup had been building modular hardware, and earlier this year he was awarded patents for work at Facebook on several modular cameras. The speaker and camera technology Facebook has been developing could potentially evolve into what’s in its video chat speaker.

The fact that Facebook has been exploring speaker technology for so long and that the lead on these patents is still running a secret project in Building 8 strengthens the case that Facebook has big plans for the voice space.

Patents awarded to Facebook show designs for a camera (left) and video camera (right)

Instagram Voice Messaging

And finally, Instagram is getting deeper into the voice game too. A screenshot generated from the code of Instagram’s Android app by Wong reveals the development of a  voice clip messaging feature heading to Instagram Direct. This would allow you to speak into Instagram and send the audio clips similar to a walkie-talkie, or the voice messaging feature Facebook Messenger added back in 2013.

You can see the voice button in the message composer at the bottom of the screen, and the code explains that to “Voice message, press and hold to record”. The prototype follows the recent launch of video chat in Instagram Direct, another feature TechCrunch broke the news on thanks to Wong’s research. An Instagram spokesperson declined to comment, as is typical when features are spotted in its code but aren’t publicly testing yet, saying “unfortunately nothing more to share on this right now.”

The Long Road To Voicebook

Facebook has long tinkered in the voice space. In 2015, it acquired a natural language processing startup Wit.ai that ran a developer platform for building speech interfaces, though it later rolled Wit.ai into Messenger’s platform team to focus on chatbots. Facebook also began testing automatically transcribing Messenger voice clips into text in 2015 in what was likely the groundwork for the Aloha feature seen above. The company also revealed its M personal assistant that could accomplish tasks for users, but it was only rolled out to a very limited user base and later turned off.

The next year, Facebook’s head of Messenger David Marcus claimed at TechCrunch Disrupt that voice “is not something we’re actively working on right now,” but added that “at some point it’s pretty obvious that as we develop more and more capabilities and interactions inside of Messenger, we’ll start working on voice exchanges and interfaces.” However, a source had told me Facebook’s secretive Language Technology Group was already exploring voice opportunities. Facebook also began testing its Live Audio feature for users who want to just broadcast sound and not video.

By 2017, Facebook was offering automatic captioning for Pages’ videos, and was developing a voice search feature. And this year, Facebook began trying voice clips as status updates and Stories for users around the world who might have trouble typing in their native tongue. But executives haven’t spoken much about the voice initiatives.

The most detailed comments we have come from Facebook’s head of design Luke Woods at TechCrunch Disrupt 2017 where he described voice search saying it was, “very promising. There are lots of exciting things happening…. I love to be able to talk to the car to navigate to a particular place. That’s one of many potential use cases.” It’s also one that voice transcription could aid.

It’s still unclear exactly what Facebook’s Aloha will become. It could be a defacto operating system or voice interface and transcription feature for Facebook’s smart speaker and apps. It could become a more full-fledged voice assistant like M but with audio. Or perhaps it could become Facebook’s bridge to other voice ecosystems, serving as Facebook’s Alexa Skill or Google Assistant Action.

When I asked Woods “How would Facebook on Alexa work?”, he said with a smile “That’s a very interesting question! No comment.”