- Produced: China
- Time to Disassemble: 3 hours, 7 minutes
- Number of Parts: 115
In Infinite Jest, his prescient 1996 novel, David Foster Wallace discussed the rapid rise and fall, within the book’s world, of “videophony,” which turned out to add a kind of social pressure that telephony never did: “Good old traditional audio-only phone conversations allowed you to presume that the person on the other end was paying complete attention to you while also permitting you not to have to pay anything even close to complete attention to her.” Fourteen years later, thanks to FaceTime, the depth of this insight was clear to pretty much everyone with an iPhone: It was kind of a drag to have to give undivided attention to the person you were talking to. (And Wallace hadn’t even considered how much it sucked to hold your phone up the whole time.) Now, along comes Facebook’s Portal, a video phone that sits on your counter or desk looking like a big touch screen and little else. You place calls over the Messenger app—which you can do by voice command if your hands are full—and by using A.I., a high-definition camera, and a comprehensive array of microphones, Portal keeps you at the center of the call. It follows you whether you’re pacing around, cooking dinner, or tidying up; it’s not just hands-free—it’s effortless. The person you’re talking to feels like she’s getting all of your attention, and you don’t have to do any of the work. Maybe videophony has a future.
The Portal is an unassuming device: It is a 15.6-inch screen (1) mounted on a base (9) that has speakers on the bottom and a camera on top. When you take it out of the box, you set it down, pivot the screen on its hinge (6) to your preferred orientation—portrait or landscape—and plug it in.
Part of the screen assembly is a layer of indium tin oxide, a clear, conductive material. The screen constantly monitors capacitance, a measure of charge, along a grid of rows and columns; when you touch the screen your body creates a path to ground, affecting the capacitance at that point. The scanning process detects this and generates an X,Y coordinate of the location to know where you’ve tapped. Which, at least at first, will be on an on-screen keyboard, which you’ll use to get on Wi-Fi and log in to your Facebook account.
Tap a Facebook friend to call them and the Portal rings. When a call connects, the processor (7) powers A.I. that locates you, puts you in focus, and keeps you there with pans and zooms. Except the camera (4) never moves: It has a high-definition, extreme wide-angle lens (140 degrees), so its field of view is quite large, and the A.I. works within that frame as a kind of virtual cameraman. When it zooms, it’s dynamically cropping; when it pans, it’s employing the Ken Burns effect.
The Portal’s four-mic array (3)— two in the front, two in the back—listens as you talk. Your voice reaches each mic at slightly different times, allowing the device to triangulate your location (and it uses this technique on other sounds, too). This improves the call audio quality; it also feeds into the A.I., to help it accurately track you.
The Portal is very good at making your friends feel like they’re in the room with you. And its speaker system, with two forward-facing high-end drivers (11) that help your ear focus on it and a bass driver (10) for depth, gives it presence in your home. But suppose there’s someone watching you with the Portal who isn’t your friend? Given Facebook’s recent troubles, this isn’t an idle concern. For this reason, there’s a privacy button (2) on top of the device. Press it and an LED turns red, indicating that the camera and mics are off. If that’s not enough, it also comes with a plastic sleeve (5) that physically covers the lens, making it impossible for the camera to watch you. And if that’s still not enough, when you’re not using it, you can always pull the plug (8).
This story appears in the April 2019 issue of Seniorhelpline.