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HANOVER, GERMANY - JUNE 12: The Facebook logo is displayed at the 2018 CeBIT technology trade fair on June 12, 2018 in Hanover, Germany. The 2018 CeBIT is running from June 11-15. (Photo by Alexander Koerner/Getty Images)

Facebook Launches Video Device, Says Privacy is 'Very, Very, Very Important'

Facebook Inc. wants you to buy its new video chat devices for your home, complete with cameras that track movement.

(Bloomberg) --Facebook Inc. wants you to buy its new video chat devices for your home, complete with cameras that track movement. That sounds like a lot to ask for a social-media company mired in privacy scandals. But Facebook has crafted its Portal gadgets, launched Monday, to be as un-creepy as possible.

At a recent product demonstration in San Francisco, executives explained that a tracking camera was just there to frame the shot correctly, so users can move around hands-free during video hangouts with friends and family. The microphone and camera can also be turned off, and there’s no way to record video. The processing of users’ voice commands happens on the device, not in a Facebook data center.

“Privacy is very, very, very important,” said Rafa Camargo, vice president of Portal. “We really made a conscious choice of not recording, so you have peace of mind.” If users don’t trust the "off" switch for the camera, there’s a small plastic cover they can slide over the lens when it’s not in use.

Facebook is a software company famous for pushing out products quickly and adjusting later depending on the level of uproar. Portal represents a new challenge because hardware is difficult to tweak in the wild. For its first in-house gadgets, Facebook had to anticipate potential issues during the building process, through focus groups and user testing. The company is also being extra cautious because the devices will be in intimate spaces, like living rooms and kitchens, at a time of eroding user trust.

Facebook said it has been working on the devices, the first from its Building 8 hardware group, for less than two years. The company originally intended to introduce them in May but delayed the launch over concern about the Cambridge Analytica privacy scandal, people familiar with the matter said at the time. This week’s unveiling comes days after a major hack gave attackers access to 50 million Facebook user accounts.

The connected speakers with video cameras and touchscreens are called the Portal and Portal+. The devices have identical functionality -- the ability to handle video chats, listen to music, view photos, and watch video from a limited array of applications -- but are differentiated by things like screen size and sound quality.

The smaller Portal, which looks similar to Amazon.com Inc.’s Echo Show, has a 10-inch screen that sits horizontally. The Portal+ has a 15-inch screen on a stand that turns to show the display in either portrait or horizontal mode. The smaller model costs $199, while the larger one is priced at $349. Users can purchase two at the same time for a $100 discount, Facebook said.

The devices are mostly controlled by voice. Saying "Hey Portal" begins video chats. However, Facebook is using Amazon’s digital assistant, too, so users will have to say "Alexa" for more advanced tasks like getting the weather.

The primary function of the Portal devices is video conferencing, with as many as six people at once. The devices can hold calls with other Portals and also Facebook’s Messenger app on the web and smartphones, Facebook said. Users can’t yet dial a regular phone number.

Apple Inc., Amazon and Google offer similar video chat capabilities and also sell internet-connected speakers with their own digital assistants. The market is growing fast, with Amazon first and Google second, according to Loup Ventures.

Facebook is trying to stand out from the competition with a wide-angle camera lens that automatically zooms in and out and focuses on particular people or movements. The Portal model with a 15-inch screen is also larger than rival offerings, and the video chats can integrate with music-streaming apps like Pandora and Spotify so multiple users can simultaneously listen to the same song.

During the demonstration, a Facebook employee on the other side of a video call demonstrated what it was like to read one of the company’s animated children’s books, modeled on "The Big Bad Wolf." When it was time for the wolf to appear in the story, the employee’s face was overlaid with digital ears and fur, making him look like a cartoon wolf as he howled. The company said people can use the feature to read to their children while on trips.

Facebook said the Portal devices will come with the Facebook Watch app to view video, but there isn’t an app at this time for Instagram TV or other popular video services like Netflix and YouTube. The company said it plans to eventually release tools for third-party developers to build apps for the Portal. It said it would also work on individual partnerships like it did with Spotify and Pandora.

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