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Facebook Debuts Portal, Its First Video-Chat Device

AI-powered screen will track users as they walk and talk to their friends

Facebook took its first major step into hardware on Monday, unveiling Portal and Portal Plus, two video-calling devices aimed to make it easier to chat or watch shows with friends.

Powered by an artificial intelligence software, Portal’s camera tracks users as they walk around their house and talk to their friends, rather than forcing users to sit stationary. The device is powered by Amazon Alexa, allowing users to get news updates or call their friends by starting with a “Hey Portal” instruction.

Facebook chief Mark Zuckerberg has said the company’s mission is to “give people the power to build community and bring the world closer together.” So far, Facebook had relied on its collection of social networking apps to do this. Now, with Portal, which will cost $199 for a 10-inch display, and Portal Plus, which will cost $349 for its 15-inch display, Facebook wants to connect users while they listen to music or watch shows together.

Portal and Portal Plus will launch with Spotify, Pandora, and iHeartRadio built-in, along with content from Facebook Watch, the Food Network and Scripps’ Newsy — and will be adding more shows “soon,” the company said in its blog post on Monday. Netflix and YouTube are two streaming options conspicuously missing.

The launch comes at a time when the video-speaker market continues to heat up. Google and Amazon — which debuted Echo Show, its first video-equipped smart speaker last year — have battled for supremacy in the U.S., where smart speaker sales increased 128 percent last year. At the beginning of 2018, nearly 40 million Americans had a smart speaker, according to TechCrunch.

Portal also comes after Facebook has been rocked by several security debacles, including its Cambridge Analytica data leak, where up to 87 million users had their profiles unwittingly accessed. The social network, understanding the public might still be wary of a Facebook-branded video speaker, said Portal “doesn’t listen to, view, or keep the contents of your Portal video calls.” Users can also delete their voice history at any time, and disable the camera or microphone with a tap.