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Facebook launches Portal TV, a $149 video chat set-top box (techcrunch.com)
49 points by stclaus 27 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 76 comments

I'm sure lots of smart people spent a lot of time and effort working on this, but unfortunately my answer is: Hell no!

> lots of smart people spent a lot of time and effort working on this

That's unfortunately true of a lot of undesirable things. Ad tech, trackers, robocall software, nicotine, wacky inflatable tube guy, large swaths of law and politics...

Wouldn't it be great if we all worked on good things? The whole hill climbing / gradient ascent algorithm this planet is running would work a lot faster.

I don't think wacky inflatable tube guy belongs in that list. :(

Actually, Nicotine (without the rest of the cigarette) actually probably isn't as bad (in particular, might not be addictive).


As someone in the same boat as you, it does seem like Portal webpage is directly acknowledging this sentiment and addressing them[0].

Whether or not this page can be trusted, we'll have to see what people find out (I sure ain't going to pay for it to do that myself).

[0]: https://portal.facebook.com/privacy/

In typical facebook style, their answers are all "does not", whereas they should be saying "will never". It is in their nature to shift the goalposts. I wont be getting one, and I'll be making sure noone close to me gets one either.

Because of "move fast and break things" I expect that we will find some unauthorized third party ended up getting access to live audio and video from customer's Portal devices. There will be remediation of the loophole and then we'll all forget about it.

I like how facebook webpage set's cookies local storage and session storage data, tags me in their CMS and show's me message "Private by design"

I feel safe now.

It basically says:

Dear Wife, there was a question about my behavior towards you in the past. Some think I was rough with you but in my defense I have never been convicted of giving you that black eye. Please keep supporting me!

The WhatsApp brand is trusted a lot more and is a lot cooler than the Facebook brand. They'd probably get a lot more success if they used the WhatsApp brand here.

This would actually cause me to abandon WhatsApp. Hard for me to explain why. I guess it's that they've finally obviously decided to monetize WhatsApp.

That face when you thought the dystopian movies of the past were going to be sufficient warning to not go down that road, and instead is led to socializing and conditioning people to normalize and accept the dystopia in their minds.

More info about the underlying technology: https://ai.facebook.com/blog/smart-camera-portal-advances

More info about the privacy settings: https://portal.facebook.com/privacy/

Disclosure: I work at FB, my team developed the underlying MaskR-CNN technology.

>You can completely disable the camera and microphone on Portal with a single tap or with a sliding switch. A red light next to the lens indicates the camera and microphone are off.

I think a hardware breakdown video would go a long way. For example, an engineer showing that the kill switches actually work correctly.

Either way, I hope somebody vets this.

I love how they have redefined a red light to mean "not recording", instead of it's ubiquitous interpretation of "recording right now".

Not to mention that even assuming it works as described; it puts the onus on the user to explicitly turn it off and if they don't it may be recording.

For a company with both a horrible track record on privacy and an incredibly strong monetary incentive to monitor its users, I'm curious if engineers like yourself understand that eventually this product will morph into a tool of mass surveillance? Every time Facebook has pitched a product as "Private by design" it eventually gets tapped as a new data source (see WhatsApp, etc.).

Most people in this thread are saying, essentially, "Fool me once..." But I'm curious to know if engineers internal to Facebook are aware they are in the same situation, where the privacy assurances by the company will eventually get usurped by its thirst for data. Or do you acknowledge that will happen and just see yourself as a mercenary?

Do you trust Facebook to adhere to their publicly stated privacy policy? Do you think they have honored those policies in the past?

>Do you trust Facebook to adhere to their publicly stated privacy policy?

Yes. Definitely.

> Do you think they have honored those policies in the past?

I believe they have though I have not been at Facebook very long so I don't have full visibility on this. But I don't think that's the most important question. The most important question is: were these policies strong enough? The answer is definitely no and that's why the company is pivoting: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UtxPdezclYw&feature=youtu.be

Does it concern you that so few people in this thread (your peers within the industry) share your trust n Facebook to honor their privacy agreements? There is ample evidence they have not honored those agreements in the past. How do we trust a Facebook “pivot” when there is no financial or regulatory benefit to pivoting?

There we have it. New guy trusts them so we're good folks.

You really don't have to do this. No one believes a person with a vested interest anyways.

I don't worry so much about cameras but about microphones. Is the microphone off button physically disconnecting the mike wires so it can't be software-enabled?

If so, you don't have to trust Facebook, which is nice. But it's why I'd like to see this in the hands of a reverse engineer.

Maybe Purism can review it haha.

What exactly is the benefit of this? The video says it uses neural networks and fast algorithms, but doesn't say what they're used for, or how it would benefit me as an end user.

The smart camera automatically follows and zooms in people. This ads shows it in action: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oZVFzDjBBq8

It's fully buzzword-compliant.

> More info about the privacy settings: https://portal.facebook.com/privacy/

I'm just saying, the privacy page doesn't address a lot of real concerns. It talks about being able to shut down the camera and microphone. That's cool. But if one were to enumerate all the ways in which a Facebook gadget might compromise your privacy, they'd go through many other items, and much more basic tech, before getting to covert surveillance by surreptitiously turning on cameras and microphones without indication.

How about:

- If I have "Hey Portal" enabled, so my voice does get recorded, what's the retention policy for that? After browsing through several sections and pages, I got to a page ( https://portal.facebook.com/privacy/ ) where it says I can "delete the history of voice commands in the Facebook portal".

That doesn't seem too convenient for intensive use of this device. I don't suppose it automatically gets deleted after, say, 30 days, or the perfectly reasonable timeout dictated by engineering common sense of, well, instantly, right? If so, why? Why not just delete it automatically after a while? If some users want to access their history for an indefinite period of time, why not provide an option for them? Surely it's easier to go to your Facebook settings page and check "Retain history indefinitely" than to manually delete things every day.

- When you say "Facebook doesn’t listen to, view or keep the contents of your Portal video calls. [...] Portal does, however, listen for the “Hey Portal” wake word, including during calls.", does this policy exclude processing and analyzing the transcripts of the command for advertising purposes?

- Is any non-video call data processed, such as noise levels from microphones that aren't shut?

- If there are instances where the wake word was incorrectly detected, and these instances can be identified as such (since you can find them in the activity log, but they don't have a transcript)... what happens with the transcript? I get that it's not available to me, but does Facebook store it? If so, can it be deleted?

- Is there any commitment to the terms of this privacy notice? If I purchase one now, can I reasonably expect that the terms of the privacy agreement won't change within the next two years -- so that I don't end up buying a good video phone that turns out to morph into a good ol' Facebook surveillance tool next year, after management finds out the program just isn't making enough money?

Before anyone asks -- the reason why I'm not as suspicious about (some) other companies is that, well, few other companies messed it up on the scale, and with the irresponsibility of Facebook. I don't doubt that Facebook has the engineering skill to deliver products that level good levels of privacy, I doubt that Facebook has the management interest, commitment and know-how involved in designing and maintaining them.

Assuming the hardware kill switches work, you're right that the wake word is a big issue.

Would be nice if it worked offline with something like this: https://picovoice.ai/products/porcupine.html

A demo of it working without any internet would be cool (even though calls require internet)

So you were on a team of people all working on the same R-CNN? What was that like? How was work divided and what was the dynamic?

My team developed Detectron (https://github.com/facebookresearch/Detectron) and Detectron2 (PyTorch version, coming soon). Another team optimized it for mobile. A third team integrated it with Portal.

Many people here (myself included) are anti-FB due to privacy issues and then some, but I think this is pretty great.

The smart camera panning using facial recognition looks very useful. Right now I Facetime a lot with my iPad and will prop it up to chat with folks and often move around but then run back to come into the field of view. This solves that problem (for people who use Facebook and have a TV).

And Watch Party looks pretty great too. They've essentially taken a significant part of the "second screen" interaction and just embedded it in the primary screen. And it looks like they're doing it well. I can see this being a fun interaction.

>> I can see this being a fun interaction.

Oh for sure, unfortunately, it's the Facebook label that makes this cool product toxic. Since the Facebook brand is synonymous with poor privacy practices (Firefox even has a 'facebook container' to help reduce tracking), I don't see how someone didn't think to market this under a different parent company and make it 'facebook compatible'.

That would become another press bomb in the future. They can’t keep that a secret forever.

The “Whatsapp box”. The “Instagram Connect”. The “Zukerberg eye”. There are many names better than Facebook.

I really dig this sentence in the FB press release masquerading as a TechCrunch article:

"If you can get past the creepiness, the new Portal TV let you hang out with friends on your home’s biggest screen."

Lets see what else we can apply this kind of logic:

"If you can get past the creepiness of having that weirdo look at you naked, he can give you cookies! You do want cookies, right?"

The real fun, however, will be when some 5 year old is naked in front of that thing and Facebook employees and/or contractors end up watching it in the name of machine learning followed by the record of it showing up on Pornhub. Though maybe at that point "think of the children" finally gets some people to go to jail. Maybe by that time we get someone like Warren ( regardless how misguided she is in some other aspects ) be the POTUS and push through the jail time for executives.

1984 is not a business model.

I think numerous companies have show this to be untrue. It is a business model that can bring about great profits.

Is is a healthy business model for a society? I think most people would say no to that.

Amazon's Alexa has actually been quite successful.

It's actually a fantastic business model if you care more about profits than ethics, and it seems like Facebook wants a piece of the living room surveillance pie that Smart TVs/Alexa/Google Nest have been enjoying these last few years. It's a shrewd business move on Facebook's part; think of the things people discuss and do in their living rooms and the additional data they will end up giving Facebook.

I think they actually mean that 1984 shouldn’t be a business model.

I get that. But the fact remains that it is a business model, whether we like it or not, and as we've seen it can be very profitable. Until laws catch up, there will always be companies like Facebook that are devoid of ethics and will abuse surveillance technology to enrich themselves.

Yes. Which makes it obvious that laws are what is needed. The GDPR is nice.

(Those who downvote parent, please don’t make an is-ought misinterpretation.)

"Smith 6079W! Bend lower!"[0]

[0] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CCfW6HFP5cI

Honestly, being expatriated, I can kind of see the value in this - unfortunately I doubt the people I actually want to communicate with regularly will be adopters of this. The tech savvy being too untrusting of it, and the unsavvy not sure what $150 buys them over tools like Skype.

On an aside, and I know this is a shot in the dark, but does anyone know where to find a copy of the seemingly impromptu talk Zuckerberg gave some several years ago now, where he explained that he wanted Facebook to replace the internet?

It is one of those rather notable regrets that I did not save that video, even though it clearly struck me to recall it all this time. If I recall correctly, it was a seemingly impromptu talk outside in the open either at a charity or corporate socializing event. It was definitely not in some venue, let alone in a large one where he's basically parroting corporate talking points. Which may also explain the candor and seemingly single mention of his intentions that has stuck with me all this time.

Is anyone even buying the portal? Maybe it's the information bubble I travel in, but to me it seems Facebook has destroyed any trust that would make anyone ok with putting a video camera and listening device from them in your home.

Fool me once, shame on me... fool me twice, er... don't fool me agian.

I know there probably won't be much actual discussion on anything but privacy concerns here on HN (don't get me wrong, it's an important discussion to have, but it tends to push out literally everything else), but I did want to point out that this quote from the article is nice to see:

>We’ve done what we can in this latest generation of products, now with integrated camera covers that are hardware, indicator lights when the microphone is off, and form factors that are less obtrusive and blend more into the background of the home.

I actually really like the idea of a dedicated camera device for communicating with family and friends who aren't nearby. And I've been looking for something that lets us do things like play couch-coop games, watch movies, and just in general act like we are together while not physically being together.

For example, some of my closest friends and a bunch of my family are across the country from me. I've played DnD over video chat, i've watched birthday parties from a phone, i've tried to do the thing where we do a voice call over some service then try to start a streaming service like netflix at the same time so we can watch it together. All those options suck in their own way, from poor-quality mics, feedback, connection issues, needing to hold a phone or device or somehow prop it up, and taking up a device which you might otherwise want to use while with those people.

Granted the Portal looks like it won't get very far without buy-in from companies like Netflix and other streaming services (although that whole ecosystem is so fragmented now and it's only getting worse that i'm not sure my hope will ever actually come true). And without the ability to really integrate with games outside of the facebook ecosystem this is going to be a non-starter for couch-coop as well in most cases.

I really like the idea, but Facebook isn't going to be able to build a better Netflix and a better game console AND be the only one doing video chat with those products. They have the chat/messaging side, but IMO that's not enough to really pull me toward this ecosystem, and I've been looking for something just like this for a long time now. Unfortunately, walled gardens are probably going to kill this just like they've killed countless other things.

I like the hardware camera covers. My latest desk phone came with one, and it's a good feeling to know that this camera that's pointed at me all day is physically blocked. Tape works, but is ugly.

Of course, given a choice, I'd prefer to have fewer cameras pointed at me.

The first Portal devices as well as this Portal TV are using an OS based on Android AOSP.

So porting Fire TV or Android TV apps will be much more easy for developers who want to offer their content on the Portal TV.

I just don't have any faith that any of the major streaming services will want to port their services to this device, even if it's simple and straightforward for them to do technically.

In fact it's more likely that they will try to come out with their own hardware IMO. At every step of the way streaming companies have made it harder and harder to actually use their services. From exclusivity deals with one vendor over another, to having shows and movies jump from service to service over the years. Unless I can get some kind of assurance that i'll be able to actually use this to watch a good amount of tv shows and movies with friends and family, i'm not going to gamble on it.

Sure, they might be able to get Netflix on it eventually, but Amazon probably won't touch it, Google will probably steer clear if they can, and the "cable-based streaming services" don't look like they even have the time or ability to maintain the apps and services they already have.

At the end of the day I expect some basic services to come eventually, but they probably won't bother integrating with the more advanced features like simultaneous streaming on multiple devices and other stuff. I'd love to be surprised, but I just don't have much faith any more.

They already have integration with Alexa voice commands, so maybe there's some hope of adding prime video

They've solved some real business problems here and there's a lot of cool engineering tech. I'm surprised this is buried so far that I had to use HN search to find it. Unfortunately the fact that this comes from Facebook is the albatross hanging around this product's neck as illustrated by most of the comments on here.

I couldn't convince any of my friends or family to get one of the last-gen Portals even with the discounts. I still don't know anybody who actually has one.

What none of the privacy-related prose defense by Facebook addresses is the abundant value of the metadata that Facebook will be able to harvest. Check out what leaking even just the metadata can tell about you.[0]

[0]: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bM0PmwOlifE

Hahahaha... how about no?!

I can't find the article, but the "Facebook Showerhead" and "Facebook TV" were both joke products back in the early '10s. This is hilariously predictable.

Cool. Would consider using this, but for business videoconferencing.

If you accept the premise that Facebook is hemorrhaging users (or worried about hemorrhaging users), these sorts of products makes sense as a means to ensure you ALWAYS have a active Facebook account.

Kind of like everyone has a Google account, either through personal gmail-esque services, a google-for-education account, an android device, a Google IoT device, their work account, etc.

"There will be no fight. It will not be hard to keep an eye on the masses. No one will be duped into giving up their rights. The sad part actually, is that they will take it willingly. Gladly, and they will be happy with it." -- Someone, somewhere, I can't remember.

What demographic is this intended for?

People who would by an Alexa show and still watch normal TV. So, my parents for example. Though an interesting thing has happened. Event though this is very similar to Google or Alexa devices with cameras, I'd bet money on my parents having a similar "how about no" reaction to any Facebook hardware. They are Facebook users, but I think there is a lot more inherent scepticism around Facebook that has been growing over the past year. Maybe, if this came out before the show, it would have been the other way around. I'm in Germany btw.

I'm definitely not the target. The two features here (TV and video chat) are completely opposite to my needs. I want a dumb (relatively) box to which I can hook up my Netflixes and Prime Videos etc. and view them without any ads in the UI (looking at you, scum of the earth Smart TV manufacturers). Apple TV, Roku or whatever. The hardware that is, not their respective services.

Seems like a consumer-friendly version of Zoom or Google Meet (if the quality is as good as those solutions). I remember how difficult it was for the office administrator to set up our Zoom hardware. Perhaps this is a much friendlier version?

> The Portal TV is genius


Objectively, it kind of is though. No one is claiming you have to buy it or that it's a good product (privacy-wise, usability-wise, execution-wise, etc. it's all tbd IMO), it's a very interesting move that makes a lot of sense, and there are some good ideas here.

It's relatively cheap since you're not buying a touch enabled LCD panel with the device. You want the best audio and video quality? Piggyback off TV and sound system manufacturers and the fact that people who care about these things probably already sunk a lot of money on nice home entertainment hardware.

People won't have to worry about where to put another screen. You also have the fact that the living room is semantically already a "social" space, with a "stage". Most people have a couch to fit several people in front of their TV, it's essentially a room already built for video calling.

Strategy-wise, they're using their core competence (social networking) to move into the living room— which is pretty cool and unique in a world where the other options (Roku, Apple TV, Chromecast, etc) mostly rely on entertainment. Also, technology that right now only Portal has— the whole smart camera to find you in the frame thing. They probably released the other Portals before this to battle test it, since this device will probably rely more on it than previous ones.

Honestly, why don't more companies make smarter TV boxes like this? It'd be cool if Google made Chromecast more "Google". Imagine a Chromecast with Assistant built-in, that makes smarter use of your TV when you're not watching it (Google News, Google Finance, Traffic info before your commute, a couple of important calendar reminders, etc). Now I'm thinking an Apple TV with FaceTime and and Siri built-in could be cool too. I could use FaceTime on my TV more than another smart speaker, and would buy it over a HomePod, personally.

There's good ideas here. Of course, wether you want to buy is a separate issue. Honestly kind of sad there's all the privacy concerns, because it sounds like a cool device.

The bulk of your argument seems to boil down to "video calls on TV, much wow". This is not brilliant, or new. My kids were doing that on the Wii U in 2012. Probably at least a third of all conference rooms in America are equipped to do that.

Too much work to edit my comment on my phone. Obviously the Wii U chat only enabled communication with a limited audience, and I think it might be deprecated now anyway. But the Kinect does Skype.

Didn't know about this, huh. That's pretty cool. No questions about the Wii U, but I do wonder why Skype on the Kinect didn't take off more.

I wouldn’t be surprised if they are not generating any revenue by selling it at this price point considering manufacturing, designing, hardware, and engineering costs.

Man, I have a hard time carrying a smartphone after what Snowden revealed to us. I'm surprised anyone would even think about putting one of these in their home.

i don't even understand the product after reading the article. what is the value of this?

its an always on teleconference with my facebook friends? no thanks.

The value is giving FB video stream data to analyze and monetize.

from my understanding its a suite of products. One sits on your tv like roku but has a camera to let you get the experience of hanging out with friends digitally / AR etc... The others with screens seem like just regular tablets to me but probably with less features.

Another device to spy on people? A privacy audit needs to be done on anything FB touches or produces. They cannot be trusted.

Logitech has (or had) a Skype camera that you’d clip to a TV to do a similar thing; it’s been around for years.

If you think what the office space guys did to that printer was bad....

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