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A fictional Facebook Portal videochat with Mark Zuckerberg – TechCrunch

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TechCrunch: Hey Portal, dial Mark

Portal: Do you mean Mark Zuckerberg?

TC: Yes

Portal: Dialling Mark…


TC: Hi Mark! Nice choice of grey t-shirt.

MZ: Uh, new phone who dis? — oh, hi, er, TechCrunch…

TC: Thanks for agreeing to this entirely fictional interview, Mark!

MZ: Sure — anytime. But you don’t mind if I tape over the camera do you? You see I’m a bit concerned about my privacy here at, like, home

TC: We feel you, go ahead.

As you can see, we already took the precaution of wearing this large rubber face mask of, well, of yourself Mark. And covering the contents of our bedroom with these paint-splattered decorator sheets.

MZ: Yeah, I saw that. It’s a bit creepy tbh

TC: Go on and get all taped up. We’ll wait.

[sound of Mark calling Priscilla to bring the tape dispenser]

[Portal’s camera jumps out to assimilate Priscilla Chan into the domestic scene, showing a generous vista of the Zuckerbergs’ living room, complete with kids playing in the corner. Priscilla, clad in an oversized dressing gown and with her hair wrapped in a big fluffy towel, can be seen gesticulating at the camera. She is also coughing]

Priscilla to Mark: I already told you — there’s a camera cover built into into Portal. You don’t need to use tape now

MZ: Oh, right, right!

Okay, going dark! Wow, that feels better already

[sound of knuckles cracking]

TC: So, Mark, let’s talk hardware! What’s your favorite Amazon Echo?

MZ: Uh, well…

TC: We’d guess one with all the bells & whistles, right? There’s definitely something more than a little Echo Show-y about Portal

MZ: Sure, I mean. We think Alexa is a great product

TC: Mhmm. Do you remember when digital photo frames first came out? They were this shiny new thing about, like, a decade ago? One of those gadgets your parents buy you around Thanksgiving, which ends up stuck in a drawer forever?

MZ: Yeah! I think someone gave me one once with a photo of me playing beer pong on it. We had it hanging in the downstairs rest room for the longest time. But then we got an Android tablet with a Wi-Fi connection for in there, so…

TC: Now here we are a decade or so later with Portal advancing the vision of what digital photo frames can be!

MZ: Yeah! I mean, you don’t even have to pick the pictures! It’s pretty awesome. This one here — oh, right you can’t see me but let me describe it for you — this one here is of a Halloween party I went to one year. Someone was dressed as SpongeBob. I think they might have been called Bob, actually… And this is, like, some other Facebook friends doing some other fun stuff. Pretty amazing.

You can also look at album art

TC: But not YouTube, right? But let’s talk about video calling

MZ: It’s an amazing technology

TC: It sure is. Skype, FaceTime… live filters, effects, animoji…

MZ: We’re building on a truly great technology foundation. Portal autozooming means you don’t even have to think about watching the person you’re talking to! You can just be doing stuff in your room and the camera will always be adjusting to capture everything you’re doing! Pretty amazing.

TC: Doing what Mark? Actually, let’s not go there

MZ: Portal will even suggest people for you to call! We think this will be a huge help for our mission to promote Being Well — uh, I mean Time Well Spent because our expert machine learning algorithms will be nudging you to talk to people you should really be talking to

TC: Like my therapist?

MZ: Uh, well, it depends. But our AI can suggest personalized meaningful interactions by suggesting Messenger contacts to call up

TC: It’s not going to suggest I videchat my ex is it?

MZ: Haha! Hopefully not. But maybe your mom? Or your grandma?

TC: Sounds incredibly useful. Well, assuming they didn’t already #deletefacebook.

But let’s talk about kids

MZ: Kids! Yeah we love them. Portal is going to be amazing for kids

TC: You have this storybook thing going on, right? Absent grandparents using Portal to read kids bedtime stories and what not…

MZ: Right! We think kids are going to love it. And grandparents! We’ve got these animal masks if you get bored of looking at your actual family members. It’s good, clean, innovative fun for all the family!

TC: Yeah, although, I mean, nothing beats reading from an actual kid’s book, right?

MZ: Well…

TC: If you do want to involve a device in your kid’s bedtime there are quite a lot of digital ebook apps for that already. Apple has a whole iBooks library of the things with read-aloud narration, for example.

And, maybe you missed this — but quite a few years ago there was a big bunch of indie apps and services all having a good go at selling the same sort of idea of ‘interactive remote reading experiences’ for families with kids. Though not many appear to have gone the distance. Which does sort of suggest there isn’t a huge unmet need for extra stuff beyond, well, actual children’s books and videochat apps like Skype and FaceTime.

Also, I mean, children’s story reading apps and interactive kids’ e-books are pretty much as old as the hills in Internet terms at this point. So, er, you’re not really moving fast and breaking things are you!?

MZ: Actually we’re more focused on stable infrastructure these days

TC: And hardware too, apparently. Which is a pretty radical departure for Facebook. All those years everyone thought you were going to do a Facebook phone but you left it to Amazon to flop into that pit… Who needs hardware when you can put apps and tracker pixels on everything, right?!

But here you are now, kinda working with Amazon for Portal — while also competing with Alexa hardware by selling your own countertop device… Aren’t you at all nervous about screwing this up? Hardware IS hard. And homes have curtains for a reason…

MZ: We’re definitely confident kids aren’t going to try swivelling around on the Portal Plus like it’s a climbing frame, if that’s what you mean. Well, hopefully not anyway

TC: But about you, Facebook Inc, putting an all-seeing-eye-cum-Internet-connected-listening-post into people’s living rooms and kids’ bedrooms…

MZ: What about it?

[MZ speaking to someone else in the room] Does the speaker have an off switch? How do I mute this thing?

TC: Hello? Mark?

[silence]

[sound comes back on briefly and a snatch of conversation can be heard between Mark and Priscilla about the need to buy more diapers. Mark is then heard shouting across the room that his Shake Shack order of a triple cheeseburger and fries plus butterscotch malt is late again]

[silence] 

[crackle and a congested throat clearing sound. A child is heard in the background asking for Legos]

MZ: Not now okay honey. Okay hon-, uh, hello — what were you saying?

TC: Will you be putting a Portal in Max’s room?

MZ: Haha! She’d probably prefer Legos

TC: August?

MZ: She’s only just turned one

TC: Okay, let’s try a more direct question. Do you at all think that you, Facebook Inc,

might have a problem selling a $200+ piece of Internet-connected hardware when your company is known for creeping on people to sell ads?

MZ: Oh no, no! — we’ve, like, totally thought of that!

Let me read you what marketing came up with. Hang on, it’s around here somewhere…

[sound of paper rustling]

Here we go [reading]:

Facebook doesn’t listen to, view, or keep the contents of your Portal video calls. Your Portal conversations stay between you and the people you’re calling. In addition, video calls on Portal are encrypted, so your calls are always secure.

For added security, Smart Camera and Smart Sound use AI technology that runs locally on Portal, not on Facebook servers. Portal’s camera doesn’t use facial recognition and doesn’t identify who you are.

Like other voice-enabled devices, Portal only sends voice commands to Facebook servers after you say, ‘Hey Portal.’ You can delete your Portal’s voice history in your Facebook Activity Log at any time.

Pretty cool, huh!

TC: Just to return to your stable infrastructure point for a second, Mark — did you mean Facebook is focused on security too? Because, well, your company keeps leaking personal data like a sieve holds water…

MZ: We think of infrastructure as a more holistic concept. And, uh, as a word that sounds reassuring

TC: Okay, so of course you can’t 100% guarantee Portal against hacking risks, though you’re taking precautions by encrypting calls. But Portal might also ‘accidentally’ record stuff adults and kids say in the home — i.e. if its ‘Hey Portal’ local listening function gets triggered when it shouldn’t. And it will then be 100% up to a responsible adult to find their way through Facebook’s labyrinthine settings and delete those wiretaps, won’t it?

MZ: You can control all your information, yes

TC: The marketing bumpf also doesn’t spell out what Facebook does with ‘Hey Portal’ voice recordings, or the personal insights your company is able to glean from them, but Facebook is in the business of profiling people for ad targeting purposes so we must assume that any and all voice commands and interactions, with the sole exception of the contents of videocalls, will go into feeding that beast.

So the metadata of who you talk to via Portal, what you listen to and look at (minus any Alexa-related interactions that you’ve agreed to hand off to Amazon for its own product targeting purposes), and potentially much more besides is all there for Facebook’s taking — given the kinds of things that an always-on listening device located in a domestic setting could be accidentally privy to.

Then, as more services get added to Portal, more personal behavioral data will be generated and can be processed by Facebook for selling ads.

MZ: Well, I mean, like I told that Senator we do sell ads

TC: And smart home hardware too now, apparently.

One more thing, Mark: In Europe, Facebook didn’t used to have face recognition technology switched on did it?

MZ: We had it on pause for a while

TC: But you switched it back on earlier this year right?

MZ: Facebook users in Europe can choose to use it, yes

TC: And who’s in charge of framing that choice?

MZ: Uh, well we are obviously

TC: We’d like you to tap on the Portal screen now, Mark. Tap on the face you can see to make the camera zoom right in on this mask of your own visage. Can you do that for us?

MZ: Uh, sure

[sound of a finger thudding against glass]

MZ: Are you seeing this? It really is pretty creepy!

Or — I mean — it would be if it wasn’t so, like, familiar…

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg arrives to testify before a joint hearing of the US Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee and Senate Judiciary Committee on Capitol Hill, April 10, 2018 in Washington, DC. (Photo: JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images)

[sound of a child crying]

Priscilla to Mark: Eeeew! Turn that thing off!

TC: Thanks Mark. We’ll leave you guys to it.

Enjoy your Shake Shack. Again.


Portal: Thanks for calling Mark, TechCrunch! Did you enjoy your Time Well Spent?

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Apple is bringing music video broadcasting back with Apple Music TV channel

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Today, Apple launched a 24-hour streaming video channel called Apple Music TV that will harken back to the early days of MTV by playing mostly music videos—but in this case, it’s ad-free.

Viewers will be able to watch the channel in either the TV app (on an Apple device like a Mac, iPhone, or Apple TV) or the Music app (it’s found in the Browse tab). Additionally, you can find it at apple.co/AppleMusicTV.

There is no live chat, there aren’t any interactive features, and there’s no integration at all with the Apple Music app (like the ability to favorite songs), so users may find the service is barebones compared to some other music-focused streaming offerings.

However, those who just want the return of the early MTV formula of marathoning music videos 24 hours a day with few additional frills will find a lot to like here.

It currently seems like the channel will stream human-curated music videos the vast majority of the time. The opening act for the channel is a marathon of the top 100 music videos streamed on Apple Music. Other special events will follow—like a day-long Bruce Springsteen event featuring videos and interviews on October 22 to coincide with Springsteen’s new album. Also, Apple Music TV will debut new music videos each Friday.

Apple Music TV will not require a subscription to Apple Music or Apple TV+, but for now, the channel is only available in the United States, likely due to licensing restrictions.

Offering this channel will give Apple a place to air some of the music-related content it has already produced, though the company hasn’t yet said whether it plans to air documentaries (like the award-winning, Spike Jonze-directed Beastie Boys Story on Apple TV+) there.

The channel’s availability on hundreds of millions of active Apple devices will also make it a marketing tool for the company, especially in terms of promoting artists that have a relationship with the Apple Music service.

Listing image by Samuel Axon

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Google shuts down Trusted Contacts, its emergency location sharing app

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Calling Google Maps location sharing a replacement for Trusted Contacts isn’t quite right. Trusted Contacts was more privacy-focused than today’s Google Maps sharing. While both let you share your location, Trusted Contacts did not have an “always-on” location sharing mode. It would let you give people permission to request your location via the emergency request, but they wouldn’t be able to see where you are all the time. In Google Maps, there is no request system, so if you want other people to be able to see your location in an emergency, you need to proactively share your location for a set time or turn on always-on sharing.

Google’s new take on a safety app is the Pixel-exclusive “Personal Safety” app, which doesn’t let people request your location on an emergency-only basis. You can proactively schedule a “safety check,” which will let you set a timer for a dead man’s switch that will alert your emergency contacts if you don’t answer. Google envisions people using this for things like going on a walk alone or going to a party.

If you have a ton of trusted contacts, Google will let you download them from the trusted contacts page until December 1.

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Google Chat goes free in 2021, while Hangouts loses features this month

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OK, now that we’re all on the same page (right? everyone?) the first bit of news in the blog post is that Google Chat will go live for consumer accounts “starting in the first half of 2021.” The service started as a business-focused G Suite app (G Suite is now called “Google Workspace”), so access to Google Chat originally required you to pay for G Suite. But in 2021, it will be free for everyone. Google says it wants a “smooth transition” from Google Hangouts to Chat, and it will “automatically migrate your Hangouts conversations, along with contacts and saved history.”

The slow death of Hangouts

With the rise of Google Chat, Google Hangouts is going to die. Google initially announced this all the way back in 2018, and now we’re getting more details about the service’s slow shutdown and transition plans for the services that rely on it. We’ve already seen Hangouts lose location sharing and SMS support, and in the blog post, Google announced that phone calls, Google Fi support, and Google Voice support will soon be stripped away from the service.

First up is the loss of Google Fi SMS, which starts “in the next few weeks.” Google Fi can use your phone SMS app to send messages, but since it’s a real cell phone service, it could also get SMS messages through Hangouts. Hangouts has apps for Android, a Chrome extension, and two Web access points—Gmail and hangouts.google.com—so it was a super-easy way to use Google Fi. For Google users, it was also the home of their non-SMS messages, so you got everything in one convenient app. While Google Chat is taking over for Hangouts, it’s not picking up this bit of functionality. If you want Google Fi messages, you’ll soon need to use Google Messages, the Android SMS app.

Google Messages only has an Android app and a Web app. The Messages Web app currently works by forwarding data from your phone, so your phone needs to be on for it to work, and you have to log in by scanning a QR code from your phone. Google notes that Fi users will be able to use Web Messages “even when their phone is off,” so it sounds like normal login functionality will finally come to the service.

Google Voice is also losing Hangouts integration this month. Voice has its own phone apps and a Web app, and you’ll soon need to use those.

The death of phone calls in Google Hangouts is apparently because “new telecommunications regulations are being introduced in the EU and US beginning in 2021.” Google doesn’t explain what these new regulations are, but the timing lines up with an FCC mandate for VoIP services to include location with 911 calls by January 2021.

Google Chat is not terrible

Enlarge / The Google Chat Web app. It’s fine.

Ron Amadeo

This is all very reminiscent of the other big Google shutdown that’s going on right now: the transition from Google Play Music to YouTube Music. While YouTube Music is nowhere near ready and Google Music users can expect to lose loads of features, Google Chat is actually pretty good as a Hangouts replacement. For whatever reason, I already have access to it on my consumer Google account, and I’ve been free to message my existing Hangouts contacts. There aren’t any showstopping missing features, and the UI is modern and straightforward. It’s not ready yet mostly due to transition issues. I can’t participate in group chats, and I can’t add new contacts, just a certain number of my contacts have been flagged as Chat compatible. The core messaging looks great, though, and if both people are on Chat, you get great features like editing messages. It’s by no means a competitive service compared to messaging ecosystems that don’t get rebooted every two years, but if you just want to send messages and pictures back and forth across all your devices, it’s fine.

As with Google Music, though, Google is transitioning backward again by shutting down an old service faster than it’s building the new one. These transitions would go a lot smoother if Google made the new app fully functional first and then shut down the old app later after people have moved on. Slowly killing its existing apps without having a viable replacement ready doesn’t just feel bad; it opens the door for users to dump Google services completely.

While Hangouts is going to lose more features as soon as this month, we still don’t have a final shutdown date for the service.

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