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So I sent my mom that newfangled Facebook Portal – TechCrunch

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“Who am I going to be worried about? Oh Facebook seeing? No, I’m not worried about Facebook seeing. They’re going to look at my great art collection and say they want to come steal it? No, I never really thought about it.” That’s my 72-year-old mother Sally Constine’s response to whether she’s worried about her privacy now that she has a Facebook Portal video chat device. The gadget goes on sale and starts shipping today at $349 for the 15.6-inch swiveling screen Portal+, $199 for the 10-inch Portal, and $100 off for buying any two.

The sticking point for most technology reporters — that it’s creepy or scary to have a Facebook camera and microphone in your house — didn’t even register as a concern with a normal tech novice like my mom. “I don’t really think of it any different from a phone call,” she says. “It’s not a big deal for me.”

While Facebook has been mired by privacy scandals after a year of Cambridge Analytica and its biggest-ever data breach, the concept that it can’t be trusted hasn’t necessarily trickled down to everyone. And without that coloring her perception, my mom found the Portal to be an easy way to video chat with family, and a powerful reminder to do so.

For a full review of Facebook Portal, check out TechCrunch hardware editor Brian Heater’s report:

As a quick primer, Portal and Portal+ are smart video screens and Bluetooth speakers that offer an auto-zooming camera that follows you around the room as you video chat. They include both Facebook’s own voice assistant for controlling Messenger, as well as Amazon Alexa. There’s also a third-party app platform for speech-activated Spotify and Pandora, video clips from The Food Network and Newsy, and it can slideshow through your Facebook photos while it’s idle. For privacy, communications are encrypted, AI voice processing is done locally on the device, there’s an off switch that disconnects the camera and mic and it comes with a physical lens cover so you know no one’s watching you. It fares well in comparison to the price, specs and privacy features compared to Amazon’s Echo Show, Google Home Hub and other smart displays.

When we look at our multi-functional smartphones and computers, connecting with loved ones isn’t always the first thing that comes to mind the way it did with an old-school home telephone. But with the Portal in picture frame mode rotating through our Facebook photos of those loved ones, and with it at the beck and call of our voice commands, it felt natural to turn those in-between times we might have scrolled through Instagram to instead chatting face to face.

My mother found setting up the Portal to be quite simple, though she wished the little instructional card used a bigger font. She had no issue logging in to her Facebook, Amazon Alexa and Spotify accounts. “It’s all those things in one. If you had this, you could put Alexa in a different room,” the Constine matriarch says.

She found the screen to be remarkably sharp, though some of the on-screen buttons could be better labeled, at least at first. But once she explored the device’s software, she was uncontrollably giggling while trying on augmented reality masks as we talked. She even used the AR Storytime feature to read me a bedtime tale like she did 30 years ago. If I was still a child, I think I would have loved this way to play with a parent who was away from home. The intuitive feature instantly had her reading a modernized Three Little Pigs story while illustrations filled our screens. And when she found herself draped in an AR big bad wolf costume during his quotes, she knew to adopt his gruff voice.

One of the few problems she found was that when Facebook’s commercials for Portal came on the TV, they’d end up accidentally activating her Portal. Facebook might need to train the device to ignore its own ads, perhaps by muting them in a certain part of the audio spectrum as one Reddit user suggested Amazon may have done to prevent causing trouble with its Super Bowl commercial.

My mom doesn’t Skype or FaceTime much. She’s just so used to a lifetime of audio calls with her sister back in England that she rarely remembers that video is an option. Having a dedicated device in the kitchen kept the idea top-of-mind. “I really want to have a conversation seeing her. I think I would really feel close to her if I could see her like I’m seeing you now,” she tells me.

Convincing jaded younger adults to buy a Portal might be a steep challenge for Facebook. But perhaps Facebook understands that. Rather than being seemingly ignorant of or calloused about the privacy climate it’s launching Portal into, the company may be purposefully conceding to the tech news wonks that includes those who’ll be reviewing Portal but not necessarily the much larger mainstream audience. If it concentrates on seniors and families with young children who might not have the same fears of Facebook, it may have found a way to actually bring us closer together in the way its social network is supposed to.

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Apple details new iPhone features like door detection, live captions

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Global Accessibility Awareness Day is Thursday, so Apple took to its newsroom blog this week to announce several major new accessibility features headed to the iPhone, Apple Watch, iPad, and Mac.

One of the most widely used will likely be Live Captions, which is coming to iPhone, Mac, and iPad. The feature shows AI-driven, live-updating subtitles for speech coming from any audio source on the phone, whether the user is “on a phone or FaceTime call, using a video conferencing or social media app, streaming media content, or having a conversation with someone next to them.”

The text (which users can resize at will) appears at the top of the screen and ticks along as the subject speaks. Additionally, Mac users will be able to type responses and have them read aloud to others on the call. Live Captions will enter public beta on supported devices (“iPhone 11 and later, iPad models with A12 Bionic and later, and Macs with Apple silicon”) later this year.

There’s also door detection. It unfortunately will only work on iPhones and iPads with a lidar sensor (so the iPhone 12 Pro, iPhone 13 Pro, or recent iPad Pro models), but it sounds useful for those who are blind or have low vision. It uses the iPhone’s camera and AR sensors, in tandem with machine learning, to identify doors and audibly tell users where the door is located, whether it’s open or closed, how it can be opened, and what writing or labeling it might have.

Door detection will join people detection and image descriptions in a new “detection mode” intended for blind or low-vision users in iOS and iPadOS. Apple’s blog post didn’t say when that feature would launch, however.

Other accessibility additions that Apple says are just around the corner include 20 new Voice Over languages, new hand gestures on Apple Watch, and a feature that allows game players to receive help from a “buddy” with another game controller without disconnecting their own. Additionally, there are new Siri and Apple Books customizations meant to expand accessibility for people with disabilities, sound recognition customizations, and Apple Watch screen mirroring on the iPhone—which gives Watch users access to many accessibility features available on the iPhone but not the Watch.

Tech enthusiasts often lament that smartphones (and personal tech in general) have become stagnant, without many exciting new developments. But that couldn’t be further from the truth for many people with disabilities. Google, Apple, and numerous researchers and startups have been making significant advancements, bringing powerful new accessibility features to mobile devices.

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Google Russia forced to declare bankruptcy after bank account seizure

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Enlarge / The Google doodle for Russia National Day 2016.

Google’s going… out of business?! That’s apparently the case in Russia. As Reuters reports, Google’s Russia subsidiary plans to file for bankruptcy after “the authorities seized its bank account, making it impossible to carry on operations.” Reuters has a statement from Google:

The Russian authorities’ seizure of Google Russia’s bank account has made it untenable for our Russia office to function, including employing and paying Russia-based employees, paying suppliers and vendors, and meeting other financial obligations. Google Russia has published a notice of its intention to file for bankruptcy.

A regulatory filing showed Google Russia has been expecting to file for bankruptcy since March 22. The division did $2 billion in revenue last year, but that doesn’t matter much when authorities take your entire bank account.

Unlike many tech companies that have abandoned Russia over its invasion of Ukraine, Google has tried to keep doing business in the country. Heavy hitters like Google Search, YouTube, Maps, Gmail, and Google Play are all still running in Russia. Google’s most important product, the ad platform, was shut down on March 3 in Russia after the Russian government started demanding it censor ads about the war. Over the next few days in March, the big four credit card companies all pulled out of Russia, making normal business transactions very difficult. Google cited this “payment system disruption” as the reason for shutting down Google Play paid apps.

It’s not clear how much of a presence Google will have in Russia going forward. Google has been accused of having a cozy relationship with Russia, and its behavior is an outlier over competitors like Microsoft and Apple, which both voluntarily stopped paid services in the country before the credit card companies pulled out. While Google enjoys a ~90 percent search market share in many countries, Russia is one of the few places it faces a viable search competitor; Google splits the search market nearly 50/50 with local tech company Yandex. That market share might explain why Google doesn’t take a tough stance against Russia—if it gets blocked even temporarily, there might not be a market to come back to.

The Russian government still wants to rely on Google for some services, though. The government said Tuesday it wants to keep YouTube running in the country, saying that a shutdown would harm Russian citizens. Like the rest of the world, there are no video sites on the same scale as YouTube in Russia.

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Microsoft previews a new, totally redesigned Outlook for Windows app

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Enlarge / The new Outlook client for Windows will unify the web and offline clients—when it’s done, anyway.

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For years now, Microsoft has been planning behind the scenes to unify its disparate Outlook clients across the web, Windows, and macOS. Today, that goal moved one step closer to completion with the introduction of a new Outlook client for Windows users that closely mirrors the interface and functionality of the Outlook web client.

The new app is available to Office Insiders in the Beta channel who have work or school Microsoft 365 accounts. Regular Microsoft accounts aren’t currently supported. This appears to be the same version of the Outlook client that leaked to the public a couple of weeks ago.

A unified Outlook client, also known as “One Outlook” or “Project Monarch,” will be an especially welcome change for Mac users. The Mac version of Outlook has always looked different from and been less fully featured than the Windows client, though the current situation is much better than the bad old days of Microsoft Entourage.

The new Outlook app will reportedly replace not just the current Outlook app but also Windows’ built-in Mail and Calendar apps. Those apps received minor updates for Windows 11 to bring them in line with its redesigned user interface but otherwise haven’t seen many functional improvements in recent years. The new Outlook app will run on Windows 10 and 11, but we don’t know whether it will replace the Mail and Calendar apps in both OSes.

The new Outlook app is still in early development, and as such, there is a long list of common mail client features that it doesn’t support. In-development and planned features that aren’t yet supported include support for IMAP mail accounts, @outlook.com accounts, offline use, use with multiple accounts, and support for working with .pst Outlook data files.

We may get more information on the One Outlook project at Microsoft’s Build developer conference, which runs next week from May 24–26.

Listing image by Microsoft

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