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Facebook’s Rumored Living-Room Screen Comes With Built-In Problems

The social network is reportedly working on a gadget with a wide-angle camera, microphones, and lots of AI to understand what it sees and hears.

Facebook’s Rumored Living-Room Screen Comes With Built-In Problems
[Photo: ProtoplasmaKid via Wikimedia Commons]

Two separate media outlets have now reported that Facebook is working on a couple of living room devices that you can talk to (like Amazon’s Echo). While there’s a lot we still don’t know about the devices, the fact that they’re being created by Facebook makes them immediately interesting for a number of reasons.

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One of the devices is said to be a smart speaker with no screen, while the other, Bloomberg reports, is a laptop-size touchscreen with a wide-angle lens camera that can use artificial intelligence to detect people in the room. It also has sensitive microphones, allowing users to talk to it like they might talk to a nearby person. A speaker on the device might carry the voice of someone at the other end of a video chat.

“. . . the large screen and smart camera technology could help far-flung people feel like they’re in the same room, which aligns with chief executive officer Mark Zuckerberg’s mission of bringing Facebook users closer together,” Bloomberg‘s Sarah Frier and Mark Gurman write.

A similar vision underpinned Facebook’s decision to acquire the virtual reality company Oculus Rift. Mark Zuckerberg envisioned a virtual space within which Facebook users (or their avatars) could commune. He saw a compelling way to extend the Facebook experience from the desktop or mobile into a promising new tech frontier. We got a hint of that during Facebook’s F8 conference with Spaces.

Zuckerberg likely sees the new hardware devices as a chance to extend Facebook into the real world–the kitchen or living room–and to leverage the hot new ambient voice user interface popularized by the Echo.

But there are obvious problems with this plan.

Why Do I Need It Again?

First of all, Facebook has no track record developing hardware that people want. The “Facebook Phone” from way back in 2013, which put a Facebook-developed interface on a phone manufactured by HTC, was a flop. More importantly, though, these two new products raise basic questions about utility and privacy. Exactly what pain point does a Facebook screen in the living room address for Joe Consumer?

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“Until you use one, the added value they bring on top of other forms of communication you already have–including video chat on your smartphone–is not necessarily clear,” says GlobalData analyst Avi Greengart in an email to Fast Company.

Greengart also points out that Facebook is not alone in this market. “Amazon’s Echo Show already provides drop-in, wide-angle, [and] tabletop video chat in a product consumers may be purchasing for something else–Alexa, IoT control, kitchen timers, music, etc.,” he writes.

Big Ears, Big Eyes, Big Brain

And the more we learn about the rumored Facebook devices–especially the one with the always-watching camera eye and the always-listening microphone ear–the more reason for concern there seems to be about privacy. (Facebook, we’re told, is even working on a 360-degree camera for the touchscreen device, so it can see the whole room.)

Lots of companies are and will be selling ambient voice devices for the home, and for lots of different reasons. Facebook’s entire business is based on the trade of a free social network for data about its users that’s used to target ads. With personal data collection so basic to Facebook’s way of doing business, some may wonder if it’s the right company to put an always-watching, always-listening gizmo in the living room.

“This new device should scare anyone who values their privacy,” says analyst Patrick Moorhead of Moor Insights & Strategy in a note to Fast Company. “Facebook . . . needs to not only have the most robust user profiles but also have a delivery mechanism to deliver ads–this new device does both.”

“Amazon’s Echo Look brought cameras and microphones into our dressing rooms and bathrooms and this new device appears to bring all of this capability into the living room,” Moorhead adds.

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Arriving Early To The Party

“One of my big regrets is that Facebook hasn’t had a major chance to shape the mobile operating system ecosystem,” Mark Zuckerberg told my colleague Harry McCracken in 2015. As iOS and Android were establishing themselves, Facebook was a very young company just getting up on its legs, and hurrying to move its core social network service onto smartphones. It was simply too soon in the company’s history to launch a major operating system. Had it been able to, Facebook could have controlled far more of the mobile user experience, instead of operating within the confines of an app.

One of the reasons Facebook bought Oculus was so that it could control the whole VR experience–to create and control not only the services but the platform itself.

Well, the next wave is the ambient voice device space popularized by Amazon’s Echo–likely a technology that will end up touching far more users far more often than VR will in the immediate future. Zuckerberg doesn’t want to be late for this party. That’s why we’re very likely to see some new Facebook home devices announced at F8 next year.

My advice to Facebook: If you want to put your eyes and ears in my living room, collect my data, and show me ads, the device itself should be free. Otherwise, no deal.