When Facebook launched Portal last year, I was equal parts blown away and deeply unimpressed. As a "smart" screen in my house, Portal was laughably bad compared to the Echo Show and Google/Nest Home Hub. But when you fired up a video chat through Facebook Messenger, something just short of magic happened. The way Facebook Portal uses its optics and software to create a dynamic video chat experience was unparalleled and remains so today. Google is trying to mimic some of the best parts of Portal video chat through its new Nest Hub Max, but it pales in comparison to how effortless and fun it is to video chat through Portal.
Nobody bought a Portal, so very few people know just how good this one feature in particular is. But with the new Portal TV, I think a lot more people are about to experience this fantastic video chat experience, and that is going to be awesome.
Removing barriers and making chat easier
Putting a camera in your living room so you can video chat with family is not a new thing. Back when Google Hangouts was still called GTalk, there was a company trying to do this same thing. Xbox, PlayStation, and several other systems have tried this with limited success. Video chatting from the television is the holy grail, but it's also difficult to get right. Between getting the camera angles and quality right and making sure the microphones are good enough to pick you up from across the room, it's an extremely challenging environment to chat in successfully.
Facebook is Portal already solves a lot of the problems other companies have encountered when trying to release similar products.
The cool thing here for Facebook is Portal already solves a lot of the problems other companies have encountered when trying to release similar products. The Smart Camera feature locks in on your face when you're talking and follows you around the room, so you don't have to sit still to talk. Also, the video chat isn't just a fisheye view of your entire living room. When I tested Smart Sound on Facebook Portal last year, it was not only able to pick up my voice clearly when I was across the room, but it did an incredible job filtering out the sounds of sizzling pans in the background while I was cooking.
With its existing tech tuned to the dedicated camera array, which looks basically like a slightly more modern Xbox Kinect, Portal TV should make video chatting incredibly simple for both sides of the conversation. Less technically savvy folks should be able to ask Portal to call someone in their Facebook Messenger or WhatsApp list and have the actual call be optimized by software without needing to do or set up much of anything.
Something for everyone
I am weirdly excited about Portal TV. If it works the way Portal video chat works now, this is something I would happily put in my parents' house, my grandparents' house, and my house so we can all see one another every day. The hardware itself should be easy to set up. The video chat features are something I already know work well, and I can play with the more advanced features with the people in my life I know can handle it.
Knowing this has an integrated camera shutter and a hardware switch for disabling the microphone makes me a lot more comfortable.
Story Time with my niece was a blast the last time I used it, using Instagram-style AR filters to put me in the story as I read it made her laugh for quite a while. And while Facebook Watch wasn't really fully baked last time I tried to use it on Portal, I really like the idea of watching something with someone even though they're far away. Though I am usually the first person to jump up and shout about privacy concerns when it comes to Facebook, knowing this has an integrated camera shutter and a hardware switch for disabling the microphone makes me a lot more comfortable.
It's an all-around clever set of tools; there just needed to be something better than the original form factor for me to enjoy Portal, I think. And this TV set up really feels like the thing that will sell me on the experience as a whole.