Dan Patterson, senior producer for CNET and CBS News, talked with Micah Collins of Facebook about how Facebook Portal is now being used in small- and medium-sized businesses. The following is an edited transcript of their conversation.
Micah Collins: Portal is a product line, and we have multiple screen sizes, and one that turns your existing television into a portal itself. We call that product Portal TV. Portal TV was designed to help people connect with each other and connect with the closest people in their lives from the comfort of their home. What sets Portal hardware apart are, one, we have fairly large vivid displays but like a camera that is designed to really make it simpler, and more immersive, and natural to connect with people. So we call that our smart camera. All our portals have very wide fields of view, and we have a cameraman technology built on (artificial intelligence) AI that can keep up with users as they move around their environments, so that there isn’t the normal video calling friction of like aiming phones, and tilting tablets and that sort of thing.
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And getting some of that calling friction out of the way really helps people focus on the conversation instead of the technology they’re using. And so the net effect is, people feel like their calls are more rewarding, and simpler, and more enjoyable with the people-connection side. And this is what it’s all been about for Facebook through the years is really just connecting people and making that as simple as possible. And with Portal, we’re able to do that between family and friends. And yeah, it’s been an incredible time.
Recently, of course, as we all are living through the context of social distancing and a greater sense of isolation, that really goes towards the core need that Portal was designed for. It’s really interesting and fascinating to see all the fresh interest in the product and incredible engagement per se.
Dan Patterson: Although we are all practicing social distancing, business still goes on. And I know that SMBs, specifically my local bookstore in Brooklyn, use the Portal to keep business running during the coronavirus health crisis. Can you tell me a little bit about how the device is being used by small and middle-market businesses to make sure that they are efficiently running, communicating, and keeping business going?
Micah Collins: We’ve seen that because it is such a simple way of communicating, that we saw some of this adoption even before this crisis. And I think what we’re seeing now is people being more creative and trying to tap into new ways to keep their normal activities or refresh the way they normally conduct their business. We have a few ways of doing this.
One of the things that we launched in the fall was something called Workplace for Portal. And Workplace is a service from Facebook for businesses. It’s basically Facebook for business. It has a lot of the features and functionality that people are familiar with using on Facebook to create groups, and have chat, and messaging, and video calling. And through Portal, businesses that use Workplace are able to use Workplace on Portal to have their meetings, and meet with their teams, and have group calls.
And that’s been seeing a lot of growth, especially at Facebook, where we use it quite like superusers on the latest and greatest development builds of software as well. So, that’s an area that we’re continuing to see some high growth impact, just for connecting for meetings with your distributed teams.
The other usages, of course, Portal at its core is powered by some of Facebook’s core calling services. With Facebook Messenger support and WhatsApp support, we’re supporting communications networks that have users in the billions. And so what we’re finding is that Portal itself is being used through people’s personal accounts to just connect with colleagues and, potentially, business partners.
Portal also supports Facebook Live. And so, people are also using it as a way of connecting with their communities. And we’re investing in all of these kind of connection modalities to continue to make Portal relevant and flexible for people to apply in their own way.
Dan Patterson: To that point, kind of this blending of business and consumer services with one product line that interoperates with the number of communication services that Facebook runs, what have you seen in terms of adoption during the coronavirus health crisis? Are people making longer calls? Are you seeing more calls by more users? And what type of business adoption are you seeing?
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Micah Collins: There’s two parts to that question. One is, we’ve seen far more adoption and an expansion of the users that our existing users want to communicate with. The core use case is for family communications, and now this has very naturally spread to like close friends and hangouts, and like playing games and stuff, people being creative with it. And so, we see leisure time, people connection being a behavior that’s showing a lot of growth.
On the business side or in the community side, there’s been two approaches to this, which is an increased demand for using Portal in new ways for applications, where people are trying to figure out how to speak to their communities more flexibly and conduct their business. Whether they’re fitness instructors or educators, or this type of thing, community leaders like churches and that sort of thing, using Portal and Facebook as a way of connecting with their communities. This has seen definitely some organic growth and very positive reception.
We’ve also had a couple of donations that we’ve made some public announcements around. We recently donated for a pilot program with NHS in the UK, 2,000 Portals to actually be put into hospice centers and care facilities where, obviously, visitation is no longer possible. And so, Portal is being used as a service for connecting patients with family members and loved ones. There are a number of different ways where just having this facility to connect and feel present with people that are important in a need. It’s seen a lot of traction and growth as well.
Dan Patterson: Whether they’re SMBs or enterprise firms, how are companies using Portal on a day-to-day basis like, for example, to connect with employees, customers, suppliers?
Micah Collins: It’s all manner. I mean, it’s just a better way to pick up the phone or have a VC. I mean, I think one of the benefits when you’re actually using it in a remote work situation, you’re going to have… Like right now the life I’m living is, I’m on my Portal between eight to nine hours a day in meetings. And the benefit of that is my laptop is free for my work.
I can still check my email, look at my messages that are coming across, the back channels that we all have in meetings, but also to look at my documents and things that are actually being reviewed in the meetings, and not lose my personal connection with the people on the call. You don’t have to make a trade-off between the material you’re working on or the people you’re working on it with. Portal actually offloads the people connection. And the benefit is also that your laptop hardware doesn’t start spinning its fans up and getting really hot in your lap and that sort of thing.
What we’re finding is, just it’s a welcome addition to the desktop to actually be a way to compartmentalize your conversation separate from your work, which is a very multitasky kind of messier environment and workspace. It’s a nice delineation that we’re seeing just rapid adoption, certainly within our company but also in our Workplace partners as well.
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Dan Patterson: I hate to think of this as like a meeting device. But man, it would make life so much easier to have a discreet device along with my work and productivity machine. What about security? Right now, we’re seeing this explosion around Zoom, and everyone is figuring out, “Well, these are problems of scale that maybe Zoom didn’t think about.” Cybersecurity, look, it’s a huge problem, especially in business. So how does Portal protect users but still allow for interoperability?
Micah Collins: This has been a major concern of ours since the time we designed Portal. I mean, we’ve always treated privacy as something that is a top requirement in the way we build our user interface, as well as the underlying technology. All of our calling on Portal is encrypted. With Messenger, that’s encrypted in transit. With WhatsApp, it’s fully end-to-end encrypted. And as Mark Zuckerberg has talked about very publicly, more and more of our personal communication infrastructure will be moving to end-to-end encrypted formats over time. And so Portal is really implementing the most private and secure ways of transporting video for communications.
The physical hardware is also extremely tailored to address privacy concerns from the hardware up to the software implementations. All of our smart camera, and smart sound, echo-canceling technologies are all running on AI processors on-device locally. No visual or audio data leaves the device, to make sure we’re acquiring the material in a quality way, and then it’s encrypted and sent over the communications networks.
When you’re designing products for the home, there’s also a lot of sensitivity around the information that Portal is dealing with. And so, we’ve always made sure we had very simple and clear controls about the data that Portal is sensing, and then where is it storing it, and giving users control over retention and opting out of certain types of data retention.
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On the camera side, we have physical camera shutters on all of our products for peace of mind and making sure no visual data is entering the hardware. People can have a very physical, clear signal that the camera is disabled. We also have a privacy control, a physical privacy button on all of our devices that in hardware disables the microphones and the camera sensor. And so there’s absolutely no electrical activity of those sensors at all.
And then even behind that, like I mentioned, we have local software running some of the pre-processing of those signals. And then all of our data that goes to servers is transparent and manageable for our customers to opt out of any retention and that sort of thing.
This also applies the same encryption technology that we’re using on our Messenger calling, is the same foundation that supports all of our Workplace customers as well. Depending on how businesses or companies are using this consumer technology for their workplaces, they’ll find that as a product system, we’re taking data integrity, security, and giving users agency overall as a paramount design principle for the product.
Dan Patterson: I understand that there is a future to Portal, but let’s focus on the near future. Give me 2020, the next two quarters, what features will happen in the software and hardware that might be critically important or at least very interesting for business users?
Micah Collins: There’s a couple of places we’re investing a lot. I mentioned we did our first version of Workplace portal last fall. And what we’ve seen is an explosion of usage, which has really allowed us to expose some of the edge cases and improving some of just the caller experience, some of the aspects of making sure I’m comfortable in a workplace scenario with my backgrounds, and giving customers the kind of features they expect over managing those types of features.
Also, we found that some of the drama that our smart camera brings to consumer calling isn’t as welcome when you’re in a near-field desktop case. So just tailoring some of the panning and zooming, and giving users more control of that to make it more professional conversation appropriate is tuning of our smart camera technology to make Workplace calling feel more appropriate.
I would say calling and communications experience is getting a lot of work, and we’re going to be seeing a lot of great improvements there. We’re also investing a lot in our SDK for calling and for our camera. And so, we are open and talking to developers who have specific calling applications that help them connect with specific sets of users. And so Portal is becoming, as we grow and scale our user base and become more omnipresent in the ecosystem, we want to make that more available for developer partners to bring their service value to our hardware as well, and take advantage of the benefits to calling that our form factors and technologies provide.
I think our goal this year is to actually start talking about more and more content and partnerships from non-Facebook services to come into Portal as well. I’m really excited about that.
And, of course, on the consumer side, we’re making it more daily-useful, bringing more messaging features, and other ways of connecting out on the Facebook platform and community platform. And as we know, some of those communication modalities can be useful for people in their professional context, especially small and independent business owners who actually their business is them, that personal communication technologies are very relevant for that type of productivity as well.
Dan Patterson: You mentioned machine learning at the start of this. Artificial intelligence (AI) has been such a critical driver of digital transformation, especially in the enterprise. Can you help me understand a little bit about the technology on the backend? How does the machine learning the Portal uses work?
Micah Collins: We see it as a tool that can be applied in a lot of different ways. I mean, everywhere from how we use the cameras and machine vision to understand the environment, understand the user, and apply really fun features like our (augmented reality) AR effects, and backgrounds and other types of experiences, these net out in really interesting experiences like Story Time, where we enable multigenerational conversations to be productive, and fun, and educational, and engaging.
And so, like just in terms of introducing visual augmentation into conversations is a huge application of our vision technologies where machine learning and AI play off a lot. Also, in our acquisition of eliminating noise from speakers and making sure that we have great far-field voice acquisition for calling, is important for any type of far-field communication device, that we apply that in our technology stack called smart sound, which actually runs on-device.
Same thing with our understanding of users and multiple users as they move around the room and doing framing, and being able to compose very natural-feeling video conversations between whole spaces, where users and the focused user is changing very dynamically. Understanding that scene locally on devices is critical to doing those things.
And then of course, Facebook services are powered by these technologies throughout. And so, just how content, and ranking, and suggestions, and even making it simpler to pick the person you’re most likely wanting to talk to right now, understanding the context of our family relationships and the fact that I’m at home helps us just take some of the friction out of dipping into our contacts lists and things like that. So it’s from the mundane to the pretty innovative and fun, we are using this technology throughout the company.