Facebook is working on an unreleased video chat device called Aloha, people familiar with the matter told Business Insider.
The device is still being developed and is currently on track to debut in May 2018, the people said, although the release date could change.
Aloha represents Facebook’s first serious foray into selling consumer hardware. The company’s Oculus subsidiary started selling the high-end Rift VR headset in January 2016, but Facebook hopes that Aloha will have more mass market appeal.
With a large touchscreen, speakers, and camera for making video calls, the device is intended to compete directly with the $US229 Amazon Echo Show, which was released in June.
While details about Aloha (including the name) may change before it sees the light of day, here’s what people familiar with the device told Business Insider about the device:
- Work on Aloha began after Facebook executives saw the success of Amazon’s first Echo, and now the Echo Show is seen internally as Aloha’s main competitor.
- Aloha will be the first product to come out of Building 8, Facebook’s top-secret consumer hardware lab lead by ex-Darpa and Google exec Regina Dugan. Facebook recently put longtime VP Andrew Bosworth in charge of all of the company’s consumer hardware, including Oculus and Building 8.
- The device will feature a large touchscreen along with a camera and speakers and be capable of recognising people when they step into view. 13-inch and 15-inch versions of the device are in the works.
- The magic of Aloha lies in its camera, which one source described as an “AI cameraman.” Facebook has hired top computer vision and AI experts to make the camera automatically frame shots and recognise objects in view. The device is intended to be used in the home and has been tested in kitchens, bedrooms, and living rooms.
- Aloha will require either a Facebook or Messenger account to work, and will hook into the owner’s list of Facebook friends. That integration would let Aloha recommend that you start a video call with another Aloha owner if both of you are present, for example. One thing that is not yet clear is how Aloha will handle situations involving multiple users in a house with individual Facebook accounts.
- The voice assistant Aloha runs on is loosely based on M, the AI chat bot assistant Facebook developed for Messenger. Opening up an audio version of M to commerce would allow Aloha owners to make purchases with their voice, as can be done with the Amazon Echo.
- Facebook has looked at selling Aloha for as much as $US499 but hasn’t landed on a final price point.
- Aloha will be sold in stores and online. Facebook has considered selling Aloha through pop-up stores and inside existing retail stores like Best Buy. The plan is to sell the device in North America and Europe at first.
- One hurdle Facebook has faced in building Aloha is consumer mistrust of Facebook protecting user privacy. The company conducted marketing studies for project Aloha and received overwhelming concern that Facebook would use the device to spy on users.
- To assuage concerns about privacy, Facebook has considered creative ways to market Aloha, including pitching it as a device for letting the elderly easily communicate with their families.
Besides Aloha, Facebook’s Building 8 is developing a separate smart speaker without a screen that works more like the first Amazon Echo. A hexagonal design for the speaker has been considered, and Facebook plans to sell it for less than Aloha.
Facebook declined to comment on Aloha and any unreleased hardware.
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