Facebook is Giving Away Portal Smart Displays to U.S. Veterans to Boost Social Connections
The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs is working with Facebook to distribute the social media giant’s Portal smart speakers to veterans and their families. The goal is for the veterans to video chat with their loved ones using the Portal so that they feel less isolated, especially with most people unable to travel due to the current COVID-19 pandemic.
Facebook and the VA coordinated the collection of more than 7,400 Portals. The American Red Cross Military Veteran Caregiver Network stored the devices before shipping them in pairs; one to the veteran and one to their family or other caregivers. The thinking behind the program is that the smart displays will make it easy for veterans to see and speak with the people who care for them and maintain social connections. Feelings of isolation are often linked to depression. That’s why PREVENTS, the President’s Roadmap to Empower Veterans and End a National Tragedy of Suicide, set up the deal between Facebook and the VA.
“As a proud supporter of the military and Veteran community, Facebook is committed to providing Veterans with meaningful ways to connect with the people they care about,” Facebook military and veteran policy lead Payton Iheme said in a statement. “We hope that by using these Portal video calling devices Veterans and their caregivers will be able to feel less isolated and more present with their friends and family no matter where they are.”
Facebook designed the Portal to feel almost like a window into another room. The smart display’s high-end camera will widen and narrow the frame based on the number of people in the room, as well as the ability to detect and boost a speaker’s voice while limiting background sounds. New Portal owners aren’t limited only to using the Portal for phone calls, however. The devices distributed by the military come with the full complement of features including Amazon’s Alexa voice assistant and attendant voice apps. Facebook is throwing in free technical support for those in the program as well.
According to a recent VA report, using technology to manage mental health is growing quickly during the current pandemic. Telehealth group therapy sessions rose by more than 200% in March and specialists conducted more than 34,000 virtual mental healthcare appointments in the same month. Telehealth appointments for physical or mental care serve the same purpose for veterans as they do for the general public. Conducting sessions remotely of reducing the risk of spreading the novel coronavirus and cuts down on potential crowds at hospitals.
It’s why many hospitals have built voice and chatbots to handle standard questions and concerns about the virus using templates by Orbita or Hyro’s virtual assistant. Researchers are only beginning to explore the value of smart speakers and smart displays in curbing loneliness, but studies by Project Zilver and Voice for Loneliness are already demonstrating how useful voice assistants like Alexa are as companions, even before they connect people over a call.
“Veterans, families and caregivers will benefit through an increased support system,” VA Secretary Robert Wilkie said in a statement. “Our goal is for Veterans to feel less isolated through more communication. We believe this technology will help Veterans who might otherwise be unreachable.”