On the Record: Andrew 'Boz' Bosworth, Facebook's hardware boss

Andrew Bosworth leads Facebook's efforts in virtual and augmented reality Image copyright Facebook
Image caption Andrew Bosworth leads Facebook's efforts in virtual and augmented reality

Recently Facebook found itself in yet another privacy storm - this time over its undisclosed use of human contractors to listen to and review audio clips captured through Facebook Messenger and - as we learned this week - the firm's Portal video chat devices.

Facebook "paused" the practice.

But now the team behind Portal - led by Andrew Bosworth - has launched a new range, including one that attaches to your TV. As part of that announcement, we learned that human contractors would be unpaused, and would be used once again to transcribe and analyse a small number of audio clips captured by the device.

I’m going to make an admission here: I think the Portal is an absolutely excellent product with some genuinely innovative features. But with Facebook’s reputation in the dirt, does it matter?

I put that to Bosworth - known as "Boz" - during a brief sit-down I had with him earlier this week.

I also asked him about plans for Facebook’s so-called Supreme Court of content moderation, and why he thinks virtual reality hasn’t hit the big time, despite billions of dollars of investment from Facebook.

To start, though, I thought I'd give "Boz" a chance discuss his new devices.

Interview transcript (edited for clarity)

Dave Lee, BBC: Talk me through the new hardware.

Andrew Bosworth, Facebook: So we've got a 10-inch display, and now an eight-inch display, we call the Portal Mini, which is an HD display. They're both designed just to look like picture frames. And so they fit into any house really easily. They don't look like consumer electronics devices at all, they really just look like something that you bring home. But they're still able to deliver that same great video-calling experience that people came to love. And we've also found that people really love having big immersive video calling experiences. Even our Portal+ the 15.6-inch display, people want an even bigger experience. So we're launching Portal TV, which uses the biggest screen in your home, the TV, and turns it into a great video calling experience.

Of course, every time Facebook brings out hardware, you face that debate of why would I have a Facebook product in my house, particularly one with a camera? One that can, by design, follow you around the room? How do you respond to people who are saying, I just don't want your company in my front room.

You know, video calling is the essence of what Facebook is about. It's connecting people face-to-face and giving them that rich experience. And for us, being able to do that... the phone has some limitations. It's pretty great for a lot of things. But having a really big immersive video calling experience isn't one of them. And so we saw the opportunity to move beyond the phone and give people that experience, which is exactly what I think Facebook kind of has come to deliver for people with that experience of connecting with people they care about.

But you need to move beyond the company's reputation as well, right? So how do you get that to consumers?

At every point in our product development, we have to think about what is going to give users the comfort, the confidence that they can use this product. And, you know, for Facebook as a company, and for each product that we build, we've got to earn people's trust, and that never stops. That's every single decision we make. That's every single product release. So for Portal, it's about robust privacy controls, being able to control when the camera and microphone are on and active. And then when those things are on and active, giving people that great experience they want of connecting to a loved one.

How much of a hindrance are the problems around Facebook, when it comes to reputation, to the success of your division, your unit? You're in charge of hardware, you don't have to work about election security and all that kind of stuff. It's holding you back, isn't it? It's holding your division back.

We launched Portal a year ago in October. And we've been really delighted with the response. And not only in terms of people buying the product, but also how much people are using and engaging with the product. I mean, so much so that obviously we're coming up with another generation now. So I think to some degree, we underestimate how much people really want to connect with loved ones in these rich, immersive ways. And when the tool comes up, that's the right tool for that job, they're going to take that opportunity.

So you think Facebook's reputation over data, over privacy, doesn't affect sales? I find it hard to believe that it wouldn't.

We certainly found a reception that's been really warm for the product. You know, it's hard for me to say what the reception could have been in a different universe. But for us, yeah, we take that seriously, we try to focus on making sure this product addresses all the concerns someone might have from a data privacy perspective, while not sacrificing on the value it creates.

So within this product, the key features: video calling, and you'll be able to watch things like Facebook Watch. When it comes to serving entertainment through it, you've got a tonne of big competitors out there that are already in people's homes. And they're offering services that Portal, at least at the beginning, won't offer. So how can you convince people to use Portal instead?

I think people have today a lot of great services that they're using, whether it be [voice] assistants or Netflix, and they've got access to those pieces. Right now what's actually the hard thing to do is to do great video calling, you know, you can do it on your phone, but it's kind of awkward, and it's hard to fit more than one person into the call. And so we're offering something that none of these other services can offer, which is the ability to connect immersively with other people. And even with Facebook Watch the focus there is our ability to watch together, watch with somebody else. And so, you know, I think it's great that we're able to provide some of those pieces that people really want for their home. Amazon Prime Video, for example. In general, our focus is definitely on providing that experience that really only Facebook can provide.

So does that mean the watching element of original content is secondary as a priority? Because you've got companies like Apple saying it will spend $5bn a year on content. You don't hear Facebook saying that kind of thing.

We feel pretty good about the content we have with Amazon Prime Video and Facebook Watch, which represents a good catalogue. But you're right, there's a huge amount of content out there. And you can go on and on and on with lots of different players in the space. I think people who want to get access to that content have ways to do that. What I think is actually the more rare thing is the ability to connect with somebody immersively.

We've never had a sense really of how successful the first round of Portal projects was. Are you going to be open about this now? Are you going to tell us how many Portals have been sold, people really want to know...

We're not sharing specific or even vague numbers about it. But I will say the proof is kind of in the pudding, isn't it? We're coming here with our second generation of devices now, which I think is a very strong indicator that we feel really positive about the reception we got to the first generation.

And the price point, particularly for the TV device seems pretty low given it's a camera and various other things. Facebook, I assume, is making a loss on this...?

For us, the most important thing is giving people access to the tools. You know, Facebook itself is a free service. And so for us, reducing the price was a really important thing to increase the access people had to what we think is a great experience that's going to connect them to ones they love. So for Portal at $179, Portal TV at $149 and Portal Mini at $129. We believe we've built the most price competitive products in the marketplace.

And the margin is... favourable to Facebook? Or you're making a loss on each of those devices?

We're not as focused on the business model of the margin. We don't share specific numbers. We are very focused on getting this tool into people's homes and hands so that they can use and experience it and so that we can learn what works and doesn't work for them. This whole category is new, we're pretty confident that as it grows, we'll find opportunities monetise. But that's not our focus right now.

With the original Portals, there was a lot of back-and-forth when it came to what data was being captured, what was going to be used for ads, what wasn't. You guys had a couple of conflicting statements. So what's the state of play now? When I use one of these new Portals, and I'm doing a video call, what data is Facebook gathering, and to what end is it used for advertising?

Just like the first generation of Portal, you can think of this as Messenger running on your phone. And so it uses the same common infrastructure that Messenger uses. And as a consequence, some of that data may be used to inform advertising, for example, that this is a person who does video calls. However that's not really the point of it at the volumes that we're seeing - not just with Portal, but the entire category - it's not really material to an advertising business. So that's just kind of an incidental fact that we're using Messenger and using other Facebook services.

And one of the aspects of this when it comes the voice is human review, contractors that are going to be listening to even a small number of voice recordings gathered through this. Explain clearly what the policy is there.

Yeah, we've had a really important conversation about how voice data is used. So for us....

Facebook was highly criticised for not being clear on this. It's more than a conversation. It's a fight back from your consumers...

...when we launched Portal a year ago, people had control over the voice interactions, they could see what voice interactions were stored, and they could delete those. We've now added the ability to disable storage entirely. So if people aren't comfortable, they can disable storage, and then the recordings or the transcripts aren't stored or viewed. And they can do that either on the device itself, or in Facebook activity log at any time.

How are you going to make that option clear to people? How prominent is the button that says you can clear all your history?

When you're going through the out-of-the-box experience, when you first get the device and you set it up, one of the options will be to turn off the storage setting. And it's also something that people will be able to see at any time in the settings and also on their Facebook app,

Does the wording recommend that people don't turn off storage?

We really believe that the default experience of improving voice services overall is the right one. You know, we want to provide the best experience just like anybody else in this space. And people love having assistants, and they're very, very popular. And making those assistants work inclusively for everybody who might have a different accent or have different word choices is actually a good thing. And we believe it gives people the best experience over time, at a very low risk from a privacy or safety standpoint. But again, it is important to give people control over the data, which is why we've added the ability for those who aren't comfortable with that to opt out of storage entirely.

When those stories surfaced about people being upset about human review, did that surprise you? Because I get the sense that people in the industry, they feel like well, this is just part and parcel of how these services work. But for most normal people who don't know how these systems work, they seemed very upset about that. Do you regret how that has been communicated up until now?

We're learning a lot about how people will feel comfortable about data use. And I think people are learning a lot about themselves and how they feel about their data use, and that's been evolving over time. So for us, 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, you know, 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.

Another thing Facebook is embarking on is the idea of this moderation "Supreme Court", and having an independent board that can look at what Facebook does, and make decisions on his behalf. Is that going to affect hardware as well as posts on Facebook? Do you come under their purview?

You know, that's such an important and emerging area of work. I'm not the expert on it and I don't want to talk out of turn. But I will say we benefit in the hardware division a great deal from all the work that Facebook is doing around content moderation around privacy, because we get to take advantage of all that work for what are really new platforms. So whether it be virtual reality, or augmented reality, we get to benefit from all the robust systems that Facebook is building up right now.

When it comes to concerns about competition, it seems Facebook is determined to power ahead, bringing out new products and expanding into new areas. Are you concerned that the pace at which you're releasing products could hinder your ability to convince regulators that you're not too powerful?

You know, we follow a pretty clear mission - to connect people - that we really believe in. And when we see opportunities to do that, you know, we like to try to put those products in the marketplace. Ultimately, it is the marketplace that decides whether what we're building has value or not, and how much to engage with it or not. And so for us, being able to put products into the marketplace and learn is part of how we create value for the world.

So you don't hold back? You don't think "we could do this, but we won't, because we're worried that the people that are going to clamp down on Facebook's power might not be too happy about that"?

We always are making sure that we're doing everything from a privacy, safety and security standpoint that we can and those are our top priorities across the entire company, more so now than ever before. And so those are our top priorities - very focused on consumers and what they expect and what they're going to be comfortable with. And that's where we really focus our concerns and our energy. Beyond that it's what value can we create. You know, I really have confidence that over time with these systems that we're developing, we're going to win the trust of consumers and continue to be able to connect people, which is what we came here to do in the first place.

One of the talking points around competition is the idea that Facebook might be broken up into smaller pieces. It seems like hardware might be an easy way to do that - the hardware part of Facebook becomes a separate company. Is that something that you're thinking about? What might be the implications?

You know, it's not something I really spend my time thinking about. I mean...

Not even a little? It's looming, right? The company must be considering the implications of these anti-trust investigations?

If you think about the work we're doing in AR and VR, we're talking about augmented reality, we're talking about virtual reality. Technologies that, in the case of augmented reality, are maybe several years away from being fulfilled in the vision we imagine. Virtual reality, which is now just coming to the place that we had hoped it would get to. Devices for the home, for which we're exploring entirely new use cases. That is what occupies my time and energy. And it's enough.

Your big Oculus developer event is next week. Every single time I go to that event, I'm told, "This is it. VR is here, we're ready, this is going to be a year where sales go through the roof" - though you won't tell us how many Oculus devices you sell either. Where are we with VR? And how much runway do you have from Mark Zuckerberg to get this right? Because it hasn't taken hold yet. You've made progress, but it hasn't taken hold yet.

Oculus Quest, I think is the form factor that we've been waiting for, for a long time, a standalone device that can deliver the full six degrees of freedom and hands that people expect when they're in virtual reality. And that is, I feel like the culmination of all the work that the industry is kind of driving towards for the last several years. Now, of course, it's going to take time for that form factor to build up the content and the audience. But we really think we've hit a turning point here with that form factor. And we have a lot of plans, obviously, to continue to improve it and double down. So we're feeling very strong about where we are positioned with virtual reality. It's taken a long time to get to that form factor that we thought really, every consumer could pretty easily enjoy. But I think we've gotten there now. And so the question is, yeah, how quickly does it get adopted? And this is a pretty novel technology, you know, this is a little harder than just a phone. This is something that you've got to put on your face and really experience to understand it.

Was it harder than you thought? I remember seeing Oculus years ago before it was a Facebook product, and thinking, wow, this is really close. We could do this. Almost 10 years on, it doesn't feel like it's had the impact that many thought it would. What did you think was going to happen?

You know, there's an old saying in technology that you know, a lot more gets done in 10 years than you think will and a lot less gets done in one year. And I think that's been true for virtual reality. If you look at where we really were 10 years ago, it's amazing the progress we've made. It's staggering. A product like Oculus Quest was unthinkable at that point from not just a hardware perspective, but from a software perspective. The machine vision required to deliver on that experience just didn't exist. Even three years ago, people thought it was maybe impossible. And now we're shipping it. And so I do think we've made tremendous progress in the last decade. But every year you realise that, maybe the summit is a little further than you'd previously thought.

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