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Report: Facebook working on video-chat device and smart speaker

02 Aug

According to a Bloomberg report, Facebook is working on an Echo Show competitor and possibly on a second device, a smart speaker to compete with similar units from Amazon, Google and Apple.

The hardware may be announced next year at the company’s developer conference and is reportedly coming out of Facebook’s “Building 8” lab, which is run by former Defense Department and Google employee Regina Dugan.

Bloomberg’s sources says that the video device will have “a laptop-sized touchscreen . . . and smart camera technology” that could “help far flung people feel like they’re in the same room.” It may also have a 360-degree camera, which will be boosted by machine learning and AI.

There were fewer details about the smart speaker, except that it would potentially cost $100 or so. The video unit would be at least twice as expensive. Neither has been confirmed by the company.

The video device will likely focus on calling and conferencing. Of the two devices, the video unit is more compelling, strategic and potentially differentiated for Facebook.

It’s interesting that the company is contemplating such a large screen, “between 13 and 15 inches diagonally.” I suspect the screen on any actual device won’t be that big. It may also run a forked version of Android.

Recent NPR-Edison Research survey data showed high levels of consumer satisfaction with smart speakers. The survey found that 76 percent of owners had Amazon Echo devices, while 16 percent had Google Homes; another 8 percent had both.

In that same survey, 65 percent of owners said “they would not want to go back to their lives before getting one of these devices.” And 45 percent of the owner-audience said they planned to buy another smart speaker. These numbers suggest a large and sustained market.

Without seeing the Facebook hardware, it’s difficult to predict how successful it would be. It’s safe to say that a substantial segment of Facebook’s massive audience would be receptive to a video-calling unit (though some would be wary of the privacy implications). Functionality and price will be critical variables.

Right now, the Echo Show requires a sibling or the Alexa app for video calling, which limits the potential market for Amazon. This friction would not be present for Facebook. It could market the device as a landline replacement or “video-calling for everyone” — though again, price would be a question mark.

My colleague, Ginny Marvin, will explore a number of data and marketing implications in a companion article. But assume that any and all marketing initiatives tied to Facebook Messenger will find their way into this video unit as well — the ability to interact with brands and businesses among them. There are also potential retargeting implications with such a device.

All of this is speculation for the time being. But Facebook’s potential entry into the market means that all the tech giants will now have product offerings in this new hardware category. And through the Microsoft Cortana SDK (software development kit), third parties could also build virtual assistants into speakers, TVs and other appliances.

Perhaps it’s time to watch “2001: A Space Odyssey” again. “Open the pod bay doors HAL . . . I’m sorry, Dave, I’m afraid I can’t do that.”

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