Facebook this week slashed the price of its Portal video chat screen and now the company has revealed it is working on a voice assistant that could be used in the devices. Today the tablet-like devices ship with Amazon's Alexa voice assistant built-in, but the devices could soon have a Facebook-made assistant. "We are working to develop voice and AI assistant technologies that may work across our family of AR/VR products including Portal, Oculus and future products," a Facebook spokesperson said in a statement to CNET on Wednesday. According to CNBC, a Facebook team is based in Redmond and headed up Ira Snyder, a former Microsoft employee whose current Facebook title is "director of VR/AR and Facebook Assistant". The company reportedly kicked off the voice assistant project in early 2018, around the time it pulled its Messenger bot M. Facebook this week discounted its two Portal models by $100 hoping to capture extra sales on Mother's Day.
Facebook has confirmed a report from earlier today saying it's working on an artificial intelligence-based digital voice assistant in the vein of Amazon's Alexa and Google Assistant. The news, first reported by CNBC, indicates Facebook isn't giving up on a vision it first put out years ago, when it began developing an AI assistant for its Messenger platform simply called M. This time around, however, Facebook says it is focusing less on messaging and more on platforms in which hands-free interaction, via voice control and potentially gesture control, is paramount. "We are working to develop voice and AI assistant technologies that may work across our family of AR/VR products including Portal, Oculus and future products," a Facebook spokesperson told The Verge today, following the initial report. That means Facebook may not position the product as a competitor to Alexa or similar platforms, but as more of a feature exclusive to its growing family of hardware devices. CNBC reported that the team building the assistant is working out of Redmond, Washington under the direction of Ira Snyder, a general manager at Facebook Reality Labs and a director of augmented and virtual reality at the company.
But the company is now working on its own digital assistant, according to a new report from CNBC. It's not clear exactly how the assistant will work or what it will be called, though CNBC reports it could be integrated with Facebook's Oculus virtual reality headsets or with the company's Portal speakers. Right now, Portal relies on Alexa for assistant functionality, though you can control speaker functions like volume by saying "hey Portal." Facebook doesn't have an AI assistant of its own, however, despite longstanding rumors about its ambitions in the space. The latest project is reportedly being led by Ira Snyder, who works in Facebook's Reality Labs.
Facebook's had a rough year. So it's not exactly ideal timing for Facebook to launch the Portal and Portal, a line of smart home hubs with displays and cameras for making video calls to other Facebook users. Facebook's issues with cybersecurity and transparency are likely to kill both devices in their cradles, especially when considering the superior rival products already on the market. Both the Portal and larger Portal are interesting smart home gadgets, and boast a surprising level of refinement on the hardware end. The smaller Portal is similar to smart home devices from Amazon and Google.
The Portal camera detects how many people are in the room and automatically pans out and zooms in based on the crowd. These features run locally on each Portal device, not on Facebook servers, the company said. Both devices come loaded with Amazon.com Inc.'s Alexa voice-assistant software--also found in Amazon's competing line of Echo speakers--allowing users to complete tasks like checking the weather and ordering groceries. The devices' debut comes as Facebook is under fire for its handling of user data.