Facebook Portal TV in the wild

It’s Saturday morning, and my phone has been burning for the past few hours. Just after I wake up, I stare at the screen and I have several messages from my parents, who live on the other side of the world, telling me that they miss me and that they are ready to talk.

As an immigrant in this country and with all my family living in Spain, this is not an unusual situation at all. Keeping in touch with your loved ones across different time zones and geography is challenging enough already. You have to add the technological breach existing between their generation and mine to make a perfect cocktail for frustration and bad quality communication.

And that is the reason that got me researching different solutions to fill this gap between them and me. The main goal was to get something that didn’t require too much set up, affordable, and not too invasive in the living room. Things that needed to get set up and disassembled every time we wanted to talk were, definitely, a no go. And that is the reason I ended up choosing the Facebook Portal TV. I won’t be addressing all the privacy issues and concerns with a camera built by Facebook pointing at your sofa and hearing 24×7, as there are already enough and better articles describing every possible aspect in this regard. I will focus instead on all the challenges I went through as a basic Portal user and how it helped me change the way I communicate with my family.

The promise of ease of use, integration with WhatsApp (which is a de facto messaging solution in Spain), and just being able to see each other in our 48 inches TVs were the main selling points for me, so I ended up buying one for me and a pair for my parents and my parents in law.

The first thing I noticed when setting it up, after the same “connect to wifi” pattern we have seen in so many other devices, is that my parents would never be able to do that by themselves. Luckily enough, I had a trip to Spain scheduled and I was able to set it up for them. I would say that the way WhatsApp works was the problem here. Whenever you want to open WhatsApp in any place which is not your smartphone (web browser or desktop app), you have to scan a QR code with the WhatsApp client on your phone for it to log in. Besides, WhatsApp won’t allow you to have more than one client, other than the telephone, active at a given time. The consequence of this is that, when you try to place a call from the Facebook Portal TV using WhatsApp, you always have to go through the extra step of selecting “Use from here”. Now, try to explain that to your parents, who have no idea how a web client works.

Linking the device with your Facebook account to be able to use Facebook Messenger calls wasn’t a better experience. The Portal forces you to open a URL in an external web browser from your phone or your desktop and add a code that is displayed on the screen. In this regard, the Facebook Portal TV’s flow is not that different from others. The main difference I see is the target audience. Me, being a software engineer who deals with this kind of user interface daily, I had no problem going through it. But I really doubt my parents were able to do it on their own without struggling to understand what is going on. I wonder why, having a Facebook App installed in pretty much every single phone, they don’t just add a ‘discover devices’ button like the one provided by Alexa or Google Home. This would make things infinitely easier for users with no technological background.

Once we have covered this step, the problem of contact selection arises. To find contacts to start a call, you have two different options. You either go through your entire contacts list, selecting those you are interested in (a list that, funny enough, is not alphabetically ordered), or you are forced to type on a search bar using an on-screen keyboard and a four-directions pad available in the remote. In either case, the experience is terrible and slow. I wonder why Facebook doesn’t explore a “tabs by letters” solution or something similar to smooth this process out. Good thing that they provide a favorites section, so hopefully, you only have to go through this process once.

Once you have gone through all this setup process, this is where the product starts to shine. Calls work. Image and sound quality are very decent for the money. Special mention to the camera tracking feature. While it works almost flawlessly, it has some caveats as it doesn’t only rely on face detection to keep the focus on someone. It also relies on movement. So, if you are speaking to more than one person for a while, and one of them stays silent, the camera will ignore him and kick him out of the frame. To solve this, my father in law learned to move his arms as if cheering in a football match for making the frame catch him again. Hilarious as it is, I am sure Facebook is aware of this and working hard on improving that experience.

Having said that, during these last weeks our usage patterns started to dramatically change due to the situation this world pandemic has put us into. All of a sudden, lots of other family members without any prior experience in video calls have just started requesting video calls with multiple parties. Services like Zoom, Skype, Hangouts, House Party, and others are just booming, so I decided to give a go to this cool device I happen to own.

The first thing I tried, of course, was to set up a WhatsApp call with some family members quarantined in different locations. Not surprisingly, searching for their contacts was a painful experience, as they were not on my favorites list. I ended up calling my parents, and while in the call, kept adding others to the call with endless remote button presses. The most disappointing thing was when I hit the hard limit that WhatsApp imposes to video calls. I wasn’t aware of it by then, but it seems that WhatsApp limits the number of participants on a video call to four, which is really far from the current needs, and therefore preventing us from using it. A huge miss from WhatsApp and Facebook.

We then, of course, tried to switch to Facebook Messenger, relieved to see that their participant limit is a pretty decent fifty clients. Having to go again through the painful process of having to invite them all, some other issues started to arise. For people that had their laptops on, just their phones rang, and vice versa. We ended up being able to connect and talk after 30 minutes of struggles and regular cell phone calls only to discover that features like the live image filters which allow you to do funny things, like add virtual moustaches to your face, won’t work when in multi-person calls. Special mention to the fact that the window showing myself can’t be hidden, and it just covers the faces of the people you are talking to:

IMG-1261

In any case, this experience was worse than expected and kept me thinking how the problem of communicating remotely with different people without a background in remote working is just not solved at all. There is a massive opportunity for the first company that nails this experience.

All in all, even with all its problems, I am a happy Facebook Portal TV user. It does a fantastic job on the “happy path” use case, which is what covers most of my needs. It is a shame that the rest of the product feels so half baked, and I hope Facebook is working hard to fix the experience and unleashing the amazing potential of this device.


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