Facebook Portal Offers Connectivity For Grandparents During Pandemic

As a way to stay connected with family and friends, the older generation is turning toward technology and heading in the direction of Facebook Portal.

Facebook, the world’s largest social networking platform, first released its video chatting device in 2018. Now, grandmas and grandpas everywhere have taken a liking to Portal, Portal Plus, Portal Mini, and even Portal TV technologies.

The coronavirus pandemic forced social-distancing and for some, isolation, keeping people away from their loved ones and often causing them to be lonely.

James McConnell admits that he didn’t know much about Facebook Portal until he helped Nan Owen, his 91-year-old neighbor with it. She needed help setting up her video chat device last month as the UK was facing a lockdown to combat the coronavirus.

Before that, Owen led an active social life, but once it came to a halt, she turned to Facebook messaging app WhatsApp to stay in touch. And since she was using WhatsApp, a service that works with Portal, her son sent her one -- the only problem was that the less tech-savvy Owen didn’t know how to use it.

McConnell saved the day -- safely -- and walked Owen through the instructions for using the Portal. He made sure to protect them both by practicing safe social distancing and wearing gloves and a mask.

"The next day, I saw her across the wall and she was back to herself," McConnell said, adding that Owen spent the day chatting with her grandchildren and friends. "It's brought her back to life during the lockdown."

While the virus has the world sheltering in place, Portal’s major new adopters include people who are 65 and older -- a group at high risk of catching COVID-19, the respiratory disease that is caused by the coronavirus.

The Portal sits on a desk or table or near your TV, and the camera follows as you walk around the room or area, allowing you to be hands-free while doing other things. The camera can also automatically pan and zoom to focus on just the person speaking, or the entire room.

Family members have been boasting great reviews about the Facebook Portal and letting them be known on social media.

“So we got both grandparents and us set up with the aul Facebook portal, “Burnsy - 11+ mentions on Twitter. “Sue we invite the devil in but he makes it a good comms tool during these distant times.”

“Daniel Debow mentions, “Got last night. 80 year old dad set up in minutes,” he says. “Kids spend morning doing story time with grandparents. Bloody magic.”

And for a 97-year-old grandma, Kirstie Wilson says, “feeling extremely isolated in her locked down care home as she can’t use technology very well. We bought and set up a Facebook Portal and delivered it (safely) to her today. She’s video calling with her daughter now.”

Mary Guilbault Linam, a 55-year-old California resident, said that she purchased a Portal so that her 72-year-old relative Jimmy, who is developmentally disabled, could keep in touch with family and his caregivers. The Portal to Linam is easier to use than the Amazon Echo Show, and it works with Facebook Messenger and WhatsApp.

She plans to use the device to become characters in the stories she will read to her friend’s kids during quarantine.

"The ability to go and do something super silly instead of the typical is really appealing right now," she said.

Rafael Concepción, a photographer and adjunct professor at Syracuse University in New York, mentions that he bought his 71-year-old mom, Cristela, who lives in Florida and sends a lot of time in the kitchen, a portal so that it would allow family members to drop in and chat with her.

"For her to just be sitting there making food and be able to just look up and talk," he said, "it's a deeper level of connection."

But with the Portal comes concerns over Facebook’s privacy issues. The Facebook Portal made its debut in 2018, the same year news surfaced that Cambridge Analytica, a UK political consultancy, harvested the data of up to 87 million Facebook users without their permission.

“Millions of Facebook-owned Instagram passwords were stored in plain text, making it possible for employees to read them if they wanted to. If that weren't enough, a researcher recently found a database of Facebook user phone numbers online. Among them: CEO Mark Zuckerberg, according to CNET.

"It's going to be a unique challenge for Facebook to convince users that making a video call is what they want to invest money in," said Vincent Thielke, a Canalys research analyst who was briefed about Portal before the launch.

"People will have to make their choices," said Camargo, when asked about consumers' concerns over privacy.

Knowing buyers might be creeped out, Facebook’s VP of Portal Rafa Camargo told TechCrunch, “We had to build all the stacks — hardware, software, and AI from scratch — and it allowed us to build privacy into each one of these layers”.

“There’s no facial recognition and instead just a technology called 2D pose that runs locally on the device to track your position so the camera can follow you if you move around. A separate chip for local detection only activates Portal when it hears its wake word, it doesn’t save recordings, and the data connection is encrypted. And with a tap you can electronically disable the camera and mic, or slide the plastic privacy shield over the lens to blind it while keeping voice controls active.”

The Portal, a 10.1-inch smart display that costs $199, lets you video chat with contacts over Facebook Messenger, or WhatsApp. The Portal Plus, a larger version for $349, does the same thing with a 15.6-inch screen that pivots between landscape and portrait modes. Facebook developed a new artificial intelligence software for the devices. Called Smart Camera, it senses people's movements and automatically pans, zooms and frames the picture so you don't have to do that yourself.

According to CNET, “The company has also slashed the prices of its Portal devices, discounting three of Facebook's Portal devices by $50 through Mother's Day. The 8-inch Portal Mini is $79; the 10-inch Portal, $129; and the 15.6-inch Portal Plus, $229.”