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Facebook tries its hand at hardware with Portal

Portal is not Facebook’s Echo Show. Call it a case of convergent evolution, wherein two companies arrived at similar looking products after approaching hardware from different angles. The problem Facebook sought to solve is one of face to face communication. It’s an attempt to remove the device from the act of video chatting.

That Facebook, Amazon and Google’s smart display partners all ended up at a similar place is no coincidence, of course. Like those smart displays, the home teleconferencing device is essentially a propped up tablet. With Portal, however, the system takes two distinct form factors.

There’s the standard Portal, which looks quite a bit like Lenovo’s recently released Google Assistant Smart Display, and the more compelling Portal Plus. That larger model, with a 15 inch display (1920 x 1080) brings to mind recent enterprise attempts at telepresence robotics. The base is stationary here, but the display orientation can be swiveled into landscape or portrait mode.

What’s most remarkable, of course, is that this is the first true Facebook-produced piece of consumer electronics. It was never really a question of whether Facebook would create its own hardware — it was more a question of when, and what shape it would take. Unlike feeds, text chats and likes, video is the first real aspect of the company’s social platform that can justify a standalone device.

During a meeting with TechCrunch, the company cited this 2015 piece as an inspiration for the product.  In it, Tim Urban lays out some pretty stark infographics pertaining to his own mortality. The piece also breaks down how much more face-to-face time the writer will ultimately spend with his parents, then in their mid-60s.

It’s kind of a bummer, honestly. Don’t read it on a plane. But here’s the takeaway:

“It turns out that when I graduated from high school, I had already used up 93 percent of my in-person parent time. I’m now enjoying the last 5% of that time. We’re in the tail end.”


I know, I know.

Portal’s creation dates back to the foundation of the hardware team two years ago. The team’s first product manager Rafa Camargo says there was some back and forth regarding whether it made sense for Facebook to finally launch first-party hardware in earnest.

“We spent six months trying to figure out how we expand the platforms Facebook has and toying with the idea of what we can do if we own the whole thing,” the former Googler tells TechCrunch. “Otherwise, what’s the point of hardware?”