LAS VEGAS—The Amazon Echo’s runaway success has spawned scores of imitators and spinoffs and established the “smart speaker” as an important new kind of gadget. It has also accelerated the voice wars and helped to launch voice-controlled A.I. as perhaps the next big tech platform.
It makes sense, then, that Amazon would position its Echo Show—essentially a smart speaker with a touch screen—as a sort of sequel to the original Echo. Google appears to be doing essentially the same: At CES this week, it launched four “smart displays” that look like direct Echo Show competitors. And there’s an anonymously sourced report this week from Cheddar that Facebook is working on its own similar device, called Portal.
It seems clear that the big tech companies view smart displays as the next big thing in personal computing. Now comes the hard part: convincing people to buy one. (Gizmodo’s reaction to the Facebook report was literally, “No one wants this.”) To sell this new device category to the public, Silicon Valley is going to need to make a more compelling case than “the Echo, but with a screen saver.”
Here’s where Facebook could come in. The company was mocked by tech pundits for trying to sell people on a $500 screen that does just a fraction of what you can already do on a smartphone or tablet. But I suspect the social network might bring a different approach to the smart display than what we’ve seen so far from Amazon and Google—one that makes it far more attractive to the average consumer.
First of all, both Echo Show and smart display are uninspiring names. The first one sounds like a TV program, and the second sounds like, well, a TV. Both imply the existence of a visual element without pointing to any particular purpose. Indeed, both sets of devices seem to lack a clear vision as to what they’re for, beyond supplying a touch screen as a secondary interface (after voice) to Alexa and Google Assistant, respectively. It doesn’t help that the two companies are locked in a petty interoperability feud, with Amazon declining to sell Google’s hardware and Google blocking YouTube from the Echo Show.
That’s not to say they’re useless. I got to see Google’s smart displays in action at CES, and they’re handy for things like pulling up maps or recipes or playing videos on command. It’s no wonder the absence of YouTube appears to have dented the Echo Show’s sales: The ability to call up a YouTube video instantaneously in your kitchen or living room looks like the closest thing Google’s displays have to a killer app so far. It’s the video equivalent of telling Alexa to play a song, which has always been its most obvious selling point.
Like songs, YouTube videos are things you often want to spontaneously share with the whole room, which makes them a good fit for these sorts of devices. (It’s way easier than pulling out your phone.) Still, $200-plus seems rather steep for a YouTube-enabled smart speaker when the Echo Dot is going for $50 on Amazon (and even less when it’s on sale). It’s a lot to pay just to call up YouTube videos, period.
Portal, on the other hand, sounds like something new—and far more promising. It evokes the sci-fi trope of a passage through space-time and suggests a device with a purpose: to make connections. We don’t know yet exactly what Facebook has in mind, but Cheddar’s reporting points to a tool that is more about socializing than personal computing. The report says:
Rather than position the device as a smart assistant akin to Amazon’s Echo speakers, Facebook intends to pitch Portal as a way for families and friends to stay connected through video chatting and other social features.
According to people familiar with Facebook’s plans, Portal will be equipped with a wide-angle lens that is capable of recognizing individual faces and associating them with their Facebook accounts.
Some critics dismissed the concept as “creepy,” others as pointless. It does seem likely that an always-listening, face-recognizing Facebook device would raise serious privacy concerns. There are probably some Echo and even Google Home buyers who would draw the line at welcoming a Facebook gadget into their living room. On the other hand, all the privacy concerns raised about the social network to date have not stopped its incredible growth.
As for “pointless,” that will depend on how well it works. Of course you can hold a video chat on your phone or computer without buying another dedicated device for it. You can also play music, set a timer, or get the news and weather on your phone or computer, and yet the Echo was Amazon’s best-selling product over the holidays. The appeal of this sort of device lies in its convenience and the delight it can inspire when it works “like magic.” If Facebook can build something that lets you say “call mom” or “check on the kids’ room” while you’re doing the dishes, and suddenly your mother or children appear on the screen in front of you, there are going to be a lot of people interested in that. And if Facebook can’t pull that off, Apple just might—eventually. (Yes, Google and Amazon’s smart displays both include calling features, but neither works seamlessly—and neither has a chat product as successful as Facebook’s Messenger.)
The core insight that drives Facebook’s success is that people care more about connecting with each other than just about anything else you can do on a computer. Forget “smart displays”; if voice-controlled screens like Portal have a future, they will need to do a lot more than call up recipes: They’ll have to transport us.
Read more of Slate’s coverage of CES 2018.