First products from Facebook’s secret Building 8 lab could target Echo Show

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There’s been much talk over the last year suggesting Facebook is prepping the launch of a smart speaker. Not so! The latest report suggests it’ll be hitting the market with not one but two devices — the first fruits of the secretive Building 8 hardware lab. And now, we may have our first look at one of the patents behind the upcoming smart speakers.

Curiously enough, as per the patent sketch originally filed in December 2016, it’s very unclear as to what we ought to expect from these new devices. The patent application is only titled “Electronic Device,” and does not have any information on the internal workings or the functionality of the device. In fact, the whole patent seems almost purposefully sparse when it comes to details — it’s not entirely clear which way is even up, or what the ideal orientation might be. Still, it’s the first actual image from Facebook that we’ve seen, though we should point out that the final device may look absolutely nothing like this original sketch.

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With Amazon’s display-equipped Echo Show apparently in its sights, Facebook  is said to be planning a device featuring 15-inch screens that could launch in July this year, industry sources told DigiTimes. That’s a couple of months later than earlier reports suggested, though this is apparently to allow the design team to perfect the speaker’s sound quality and software.

Taiwan’s DigiTimes, which has called it right on a number of claims in the past, said Facebook’s smart speakers are code-named Aloha and Fiona. Aloha is likely to launch with the name “Portal,” corresponding with earlier reports. Fiona’s launch name isn’t stated.

While both would also function as video chat devices, Portal is reported to be “more sophisticated” than Fiona. As you’d expect with a smart speaker, they’ll include an Alexa-like assistant and be operated via voice command, but Portal will also feature facial recognition “to identify users for accessing Facebook via a wide-angle lens on the front of the device,” the report said.

Facebook has also been going after deals with record labels to offer owners additional options when it comes to playing music on the devices.

Similar to Amazon, Facebook is reported to be working on additional smart devices to develop its own ecosystem, with its two speakers described as initial-stage products.

Portal’s rumored price tag of $ 500 would make it $ 270 more expensive than Amazon’s Echo Show, which has a 7-inch display. There’s no word on Fiona’s possible pricing.

As you might expect with Facebook hardware, the devices will likely have the social networking site at its heart, with facial recognition technology, for example, automatically connecting users to their accounts.

Facebook’s Building 8 lab

The smart speakers are expected to be the first products to emerge from Facebook’s secretive Building 8, which started operations in 2016.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said previously that the lab is exploring “augmented and virtual reality, artificial intelligence, connectivity, and other important areas.”

Job ads for the Building 8 team speak of developing “seemingly impossible products that define new categories that advance Facebook’s mission of connecting the world.” that team started in 2016 with a big hire: Regina Dugan, a former DARPA head poached from Google’s Advanced Technology and Products (ATAP) team.

While it’s sensible to approach claims from unnamed sources with caution, the fact that we’ve been hearing about Facebook’s smart speaker plans for some time, including from some high-profile outlets, suggests the company is about to enter the market.

Competition is tough, however, with Amazon among several companies offering a growing range of devices. Google and Apple also have smart speakers on the market now, though among all of their offerings, only Amazon’s Echo Show features a tablet-like display.

Updated on April 11: A patent sketch of the Facebook smart speaker has been revealed, but it doesn’t tell us much. 

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