Facebook brings its video-calling Portal devices to UK
Technology is being integrated into every aspect of our lives, innovating within the home has become a real focus for tech companies. Facebook has announced that a range of video-calling Portal devices will go on sale in the UK for the first time.
Three new versions of the screen-based smart home hubs have been announced, and will now also support Amazon’s voice-based assistant, Alexa and support encrypted video calling via WhatsApp.
First released in the US and Canada last year, Portal devices have been controversial because of on-going privacy concerns surrounding Facebook.
The social network has been at the centre of a number of data privacy scandals – including the Cambridge Analytica breach – and the introduction of physical devices which place a microphone and camera inside people’s homes was met with concern.
But the social network has now revealed the new Portal, Portal Mini and Portal TV will launch in the UK later in the autumn.
Facebook says it has made privacy settings “clear and simple” on the new Portal devices.
Each of the devices includes a physical slider to block the camera lens, and users can also use the switch or a single tap of the device to disable the microphone – with a red LED light illuminating to confirm these have been disabled.
Facebook also said the artificial intelligence used which enables the camera and microphone to automatically follow users even as they move around the room during a call, all takes place on the Portal device, not Facebook servers.
However, the social network did confirm that it may listen to and analyse some voice recordings gathered from users interacting with the Portal voice assistant on the devices.
“If ‘Hey Portal’ is enabled, Portal does listen for the wake word ‘Hey Portal’. If it’s detected, including during a call, it will send a short audio clip of the voice interaction to Facebook,” the company said.
“Your ‘Hey Portal’ voice interactions are stored by default to make Facebook voice services better for everyone.
“A trained team may review a sample to make our voice services smarter and more accurate.
“You can view, hear and delete any of your ‘Hey Portal’ voice interactions in your Facebook activity log. You can also turn off voice storage in settings anytime.”
A number of technology firms, including Facebook, Apple, Google and Amazon, have recently admitted they used human reviewers to analyse recordings gathered from voice assistants and smart home hubs, raising new questions about privacy when using smart home hub devices.
Reports suggested those reviewers heard a number of private conversations and allegedly illegal activity while carrying out this work.
As a result, many of the firms involved have either paused human reviews or introduced tools to enable users to opt out of such procedures in the future.
The new Portal and Portal Mini are designed to look similar to smart photo frames and come with a 10-inch and 8-inch HD screen respectively.
The two devices will go on sale on October 15, Facebook said, with the Mini costing £129 and the Portal £169.
Portal TV is designed to sit either above or below a TV, plugging in to the screen to allow video calling on the larger display.
The TV-based device also includes links to Facebook Watch, the social network’s video content channel.
It will go on sale in November for £149, Facebook confirmed.
With any technological developments there can be some barriers to moving forward, such as funding. One way to continue encouraging investment into innovation is R&D tax credits, a government backed scheme enabling innovative UK businesses to reclaim up to 33p for every £1 spent.
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