Let’s take a look at some of the devices beyond computers, tablets, and smartphones that folks can use for video conferencing while homebound.
I about fell out of my chair when I read the headline of a Slashdot post: “Facebook’s Portal TV Video Chat Device Was Mocked — Now It’s Completely Sold Out.” The Portal TV add-on, along with its standalone Portal, Portal Mini, and Portal+ siblings, comprises a line of video communications devices from the social media juggernaut (which, you may already know, also sells VR headsets from its via-acquisition Oculus division). My reaction was the result of the recollection that the initial Portal introduction in November 2018 was marred by no shortage of controversy, the result of Facebook’s decision to include a front-facing camera in the design coupled with the company’s longstanding controversial stances on user privacy.
Now, however, consumers’ attitudes have apparently evolved, to the ironic detriment of Google, who at introduction made a big deal of its Home Hub’s (now Nest Hub’s) lack of a camera (the larger Nest Home Max is camera-inclusive).
Why the about-face? Perhaps obviously, it’s due to the stay-at-home constraints that many of us have dealt with in recent months, the result of the novel coronavirus pandemic. Zoom and other computer-based video conferencing services have exploded in popularity as a result, as have Apple’s FaceTime (which, yes, I know also runs on Macs) and its mobile device-based alternatives. But what about folks that don’t own computers, tablets, or smartphones, or are too young (or old) or otherwise uncomfortable with or unable to use them?
That’s where devices like Portal fit in. Facebook’s product line is generally viewed as being more limited than its competitors per reviews I’ve perused (I don’t own one): you need to have a Facebook or WhatsApp account, for one thing, and it ironically leverages competitor Amazon’s Alexa facilities for general-purpose information-access. Regarding privacy, Facebook insists that the camera is used only for facial detection purposes (i.e. there’s a human in the scene) such as tracking and digital-zooming to keep the subject centered in the video feed, not for facial recognition (there’s a human in the scene and her name is Sally Smith, age 60, living at 123 First Street, Sioux Falls, South Dakota); although I frankly doubt the average consumer will understand the difference.
Google’s Nest Hub product line perhaps obviously handles the information stuff with aplomb, but as previously mentioned, there’s only a camera included on the high-end model. And then there’s Amazon. In addition to the audio-only, Alexa voice assistant-controlled Echo line of devices, the company sells a series of display-inclusive products called Echo Show available in various screen sizes; there’s also the even smaller circular Echo Spot. One of the shortcomings of Facebook’s Portal line is that you have to use Facebook-only services (another Portal, Facebook Messenger, or WhatsApp) on both ends of the connection; there’s no support for industry-standard videoconferencing protocols. In fairness, you also have to have an Amazon account in order to use one of Amazon’s products, but they at least expand the support beyond their own proprietary protocols to also include (equally proprietary, but at least widespread and platform-diverse) now-Microsoft Skype.
One thing that both Amazon and Facebook wisely chose to implement in their products is a built-in mechanical privacy shutter that a user can employ to block the camera’s view of its surroundings. As anyone who’s put a piece of tape or a sticky note in front of their computer webcam will attest, relying only on an illuminated-or-not LED to communicate camera on-or-off status is insufficient reassurance. Similarly, a mechanical switch (which remains the only way for users to control the units’ microphones) is better than nothing, but still not as robust a solution as a piece of plastic right in front of the lens.
And one other thing re Amazon; you might not even need to buy a Show or Spot in order to harness the company’s videoconferencing services. Recent-vintage Fire Tablets support “Show Mode,” which transforms their UIs into Echo Show surrogates. I’ve tried Show Mode out on my 2017 and 2018 model Fire HD 8s, specifically for easy monitoring of my Blink XT security cameras, and it works quite well. For videoconferencing purposes, the primary downside seems from my research to be the 2015-2018 tablets’ low-resolution 0.3 Mpixel front cameras, versus 1 or 5 Mpixel cameras on various Echo Show models (2019 and newer Fire tablets contain 2 Mpixel front cameras).
Have you tried out, or maybe even designed, one or more standalone video-conferencing platforms? Let me (and your fellow readers) know your thoughts in the comments!
—Brian Dipert is Editor-in-Chief of the Edge AI and Vision Alliance, and a Senior Analyst at BDTI and Editor-in-Chief of InsideDSP, the company’s online newsletter.