Facebook Launches Portal Video-Chat Devices for the Home


Facebook
Inc.


FB 0.17%

is launching a pair of video-chat devices that will give it a deeper connection to what users do in their homes, even as the social-media company faces intense scrutiny of its privacy practices from U.S. and European regulators.

The devices, the $199 Portal and the $349 Portal+ with a larger, adjustable touch screen, allow customers to make video calls to their connections on Facebook or its chat app, Messenger.

The Portal camera detects how many people are in the room and automatically pans out and zooms in based on the crowd. A microphone array detects and amplifies the voice of the person speaking even if that person moves. These features run locally on each Portal device, not on Facebook servers, the company said.

Both devices come loaded with

Amazon.com
Inc.’s

Alexa voice-assistant software—also found in Amazon’s competing line of Echo speakers—allowing users to complete tasks like checking the weather and ordering groceries.

The devices’ debut comes as Facebook is under fire for its handling of user data. In March, the company disclosed that a third-party developer had improperly shared Facebook user data with political analytics firm Cambridge Analytica.

The Portal+, which retails for $349, has a larger, adjustable touch screen.

The Portal+, which retails for $349, has a larger, adjustable touch screen.


Photo:

FACEBOOK

The Securities and Exchange Commission, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Justice Department and Federal Trade Commission all have opened probes into how Cambridge Analytica, which worked for President Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign, was able to buy data on as many as 87 million users of without their consent. European regulators also are watching closely.

Last month, Facebook drew additional criticism when it disclosed the largest security breach in its history.

Company officials said that in developing the Portal devices, Facebook took pains to show customers it will be responsible with their information.

Pressing the “mute” button on the device stops the circuit running to the Portal’s camera and microphone so the features are cut off from power. (Amazon has a similar feature in its Echo speakers.) The Portal also comes with a physical shutter that goes over the camera.

The Facebook Portal and Portal+ both come with privacy features.

The Facebook Portal and Portal+ both come with privacy features.


Photo:

FACEBOOK

Facebook says it doesn’t listen, view or retain the contents of video calls made over Portal. Its camera doesn’t use its facial-recognition software to identify people using the device. Voice commands uttered after saying “Hey Portal” are sent to Facebook’s servers but can be deleted.

Portal doesn’t come with the Facebook or Instagram apps. Users log in using Messenger, which doesn’t require users to have a Facebook account. These choices were intentional, Facebook representatives said, because the company wanted Portal to focus primarily on communication, rather than browsing.

The devices were developed by the company’s Building 8 unit, which is dedicated to making consumer hardware.

Hardware is still unfamiliar territory for Facebook, whose core strength is in developing software services like its social network used by more than two billion people a month. Facebook’s launch two years ago of its first consumer device, the Oculus Rift virtual-reality goggles, ran into shipping problems as well as rising competition from

HTC
Corp.

and

Sony
Corp.

Facebook initially planned to launch Portal at its annual developer conference in May, but pulled it back partly because the device wasn’t ready, according to people familiar with the matter.

The devices are available for preorder online through Facebook, and online and in retail stores through Amazon and

Best Buy
.

The devices will start shipping in November.

Write to Deepa Seetharaman at Deepa.Seetharaman@wsj.com



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