Facebook device plugs into your TV

Portal TV Image copyright Facebook
Image caption Portal TV offers video calling on the big screen

Facebook has updated its "Portal" range of video chat devices, including a new version that plugs directly into a TV.

Portal TV, available in the US from November, sits on top of - or at the bottom of - the screen and, like other Portal devices, features tracking technology to follow people around the room.

But the company also revealed it had resumed the use of human contractors to review and transcribe audio clips gathered through its Portal devices.

Data collection and storage was suspended last month following controversy over the practice, which some argued was not properly disclosed to users.

But as of Wednesday, clips gathered through the use of Portal's voice assistant would again be heard and analysed by humans, unless users choose to opt out. Human review of audio captured by Facebook's Messenger mobile app was still "paused", the firm said.

"The new settings begin to roll out tomorrow on existing Portal devices," a spokeswoman said.

"Everyone will get a notification that explains how your 'Hey Portal' voice interactions are used and directs you to settings if you want to turn off storage."

The audio does not include the content of calls made on the device, Facebook added.

'A conversation we didn't foresee'

Facebook, as well as Apple, Google and Amazon, was found to have been using hundreds of human contractors to listen to and transcribe audio. All four companies said it was necessary to improve the quality of voice-controlled devices.

In an interview with the BBC, Andrew Bosworth, Facebook's head of hardware, acknowledged that the firm has misjudged public perception of the use of human contractors.

"We're learning a lot about how comfortable people feel with data use," he said.

"This was a conversation that we obviously didn't foresee, or we would have been more proactive about it. But upon being exposed to it, we're happy to take the action we've taken to give people that control that they wanted over how the content is used, and how it's reviewed."

Unknown performance

Facebook first launched its Portal range in November 2018. While technology reviewers generally approved of the products' design and usability, most acknowledged that the firm's reputational difficulties would perhaps turn consumers off.

Facebook has yet to share how many Portal devices it has sold. Facebook's financial disclosures do not provide specific figures on Portal, but its most recent filings show that earnings from "payments and other fees" - which includes Portal, Facebook's virtual reality products and all other non-advertising related income - was up 36% on the same period last year.

However, despite the jump, "payments and other fees" accounted for less than 2% of Facebook's $17bn revenue in the last quarter.

For 2019, Facebook is revamping the range, with a new device, an 8-inch Portal Mini, styled to look like a picture frame and a redesigned version of the original 10-inch Portal.

Most significant is the introduction of the Portal TV, which plugs into the HDMI slot of a typical modern TV set, but is placed either on top of - or at the bottom of - the TV screen. Using a remote control or voice commands, users can navigate to watch content on Facebook Watch - the firm's on-demand service - or Amazon Prime Video.

Facebook would not comment on whether any other deals with other streaming firms, such as Netflix, were on the way.

'Eyeballs'

At $149 (£120), the TV device is priced "aggressively", according to analysts.

"It's a way to get eyeballs," commented Carolina Milanesi, an analyst with Creative Strategies.

"Once Facebook is in your home, it's going to be much easier to build something from that and experiment with what they have. If they're not even in your home they don't have a chance."

Portal TV competes with rival devices from Google, Amazon and Apple, all of which offer a much wider array of entertainment.

But Mr Bosworth said Portal TV's video call function will set it apart. Calls can be made to other Portal users, or anyone using Facebook's Messenger or Whatsapp apps.

"We are offering something that none of those other services can offer, which is the ability to connect emotionally with other people."

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