Facebook Portal FI

Facebook Cuts Portal Price by $100 and Acknowledges New Voice Assistant is Being Developed. Here’s Why.

  • Facebook started developing a new voice assistant in early 2018 to be integrated into its AR/VR and smart display products
  • The revelation comes only about a year after Facebook shut down its earlier digital assistant effort called M.
  • The project is being led out of Redmond, Washington

Facebook launched the Portal and Portal+ smart displays in October 2018. These devices employ a voice-enabled Facebook Messenger for video chat but rely on Amazon’s Alexa for most of the common smart speaker functionality. CNBC reported yesterday that Facebook has a team in Redmond, Washington working on its own voice assistant to replace Alexa. The company also initiated a new ad campaign with Neil Patrick Harris and has reduced the price of the Portal Products by $100 through Mother’s Day, May 8th, in the U.S. That means consumers can purchase the Portal with a 10.1″ screen for just $99, and the 15.6″ Portal+ for $249.

Facebook Shut Down M, but Started a New Initiative

Facebook launched M, a digital assistant embedded in Messenger, in 2015 but officially shut that project down in January 2018. M relied on a combination of AI and human curation to respond to user requests unlike efforts by Amazon and Google that do not have a human in the loop. However, the one month after M was shuttered, Yann Lecun, Facebook’s chief AI scientist told the Financial Times:

In terms of new uses, one thing Facebook would be interested in is offering smart digital assistants — something that has a level of common sense. They have background knowledge and you can have a discussion with them on any topic.

Voicebot wrote at the time about why Facebook was unlikely to abandon its voice assistant ambitions despite abandoning M saying, “LeCun’s comments suggest the company has not given up on its AI assistant dreams despite shuttering M. Facebook was a clear winner in the mobile platform wars because it dominated user attention. Mobile platforms placed restrictions on what apps could do but once the app was installed, there was no intermediary between it and the user. Voice assistants are different. They act as a gateway between users and content. This means they can steer users to alternative content or create friction that didn’t exist on mobile. Voice assistants may not choose to do this, but they could.”

Two former Facebook employees told CNBC that the company started the new voice assistant initiative in early 2018 and it is led by “Ira Snyder, director of AR/VR and Facebook Assistant.” A Facebook spokesperson confirmed the project in a statement to CNET yesterday saying,

We are working to develop voice and AI assistant technologies that may work across our family of AR/VR products including Portal, Oculus and future products

Predictably, Facebook will introduce its own voice assistant so it can assert control over the user experience and data. However, they are likely to rely on Alexa integration for some time in its Portal product line. This is because developing a general purpose voice assistant is challenging as even well-funded initiatives have demonstrated. And, because even a very capable voice assistant still needs a developer community and third-party integrations to interact with other devices.

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