‘Lights, camera, action’ is soooo yesterday

Facebook this week launched a range of video-calling devices powered by artificial intelligence (AI), a strategic revolution for the social network giant in its bid for a slice of a market dominated by Amazon and Google.

“It has been a big shift for the company,” Facebook’s vice-president of consumer hardware Andrew Bosworth told AFP before the launch of Portal. “We have seen a rise of video calling, on both Messenger and WhatsApp — it has been a tremendous trend.”

The device allows users to make video calls at home without having to stand immediately in front of the screen or hold a phone at arm’s length. But the launch of a product putting a camera into homes is likely to raise privacy issues for the social media giant, which has suffered several data breaches this year involving tens of millions of user accounts.

Although Facebook acquired virtual-reality headset manufacturer Oculus in 2014, this is the first time it has developed a consumer hardware product in-house.

Offering hands-free voice control, Portal comes in two sizes: a 10-inch screen, which retails at $199, and a 15-inch version will go for $349. And to start the call, all it takes is: “Hey Portal.”

During calls, it can play music on Spotify and tell children stories using the augmented effects app Story Time. It also comes bundled with Amazon’s voice interface, Alexa, enabling users to shop or control household appliances.

During a conversation, the integrated camera can automatically zoom out to include a second person, or be instructed to follow a certain individual as they walk around.

Facebook has moved quickly to allay security fears, saying that by keeping the processes on the actual device rather than in the cloud, the risk of hacking is lower than with a smartphone or computer. Calls will be encrypted, and the AI technology runs on Portal, not on Facebook servers. It only sends voice commands to the servers after hearing “Hey Portal”. The camera can be blocked by a cover and the device has a button for disabling the lens and the microphone.

Security is a sensitive issue for Facebook, which had 50-million of its user accounts breached by hackers last month. Earlier in the year, it was forced to admit the personal data of tens of millions of users had been hijacked by Cambridge Analytica (CA), a British firm that worked for United States President Donald Trump in 2016.

CA is accused of collecting and exploiting users’ personal data for political purposes without their consent.

Facebook has since reasserted itself as a guarantor of privacy.

“Frankly, if we don’t build the hardware, I do have concerns,” Bosworth said. “You need to have abuse prevention very early on; you need to have security built in early on.”

The company worked with a US film director to make the camera movements feel natural, said Nick Fell, marketing director for the Portal team.

“We set out to try to make video calling so good that it feels like you’re sharing the same physical space as someone else,” he said.

Facebook representatives prefer to talk about their “mission” rather than business models and profits, but wireless speakers and video calls are a growing market.

There were 17-billion video calls on Messenger in 2017, double the number in 2016, according to data.

Analysts reacted cautiously to Facebook’s announcement, saying the company was late to the smart- speaker market. But the technology may be a good move for future investments.

“From a market perspective, there’s a good argument that, for consumers, smart speakers and digital assistants are a crucial part of the future,” said Tom Morrod, a research director for consumer electronics and telecoms at IHS Markit.

“They’re the artificial intelligence centrepoint of digital life or digital home. That’s why it’s a strategically important thing for Facebook to be doing.” — AFP

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Julie Jammot
Julie Jammot works from Paris, France. Journalist at Agence France Presse, covering media and technology. Ex video London, Joburg. Views are my own. Julie Jammot has over 654 followers on Twitter.

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