Facebook’s shelved smart speaker may have just been revealed in patent files
Back in July, Facebook was rumoured to be building its own smart home device with a touchscreen and speaker.
The hardware, which would put the social network in direct competition with Amazon, Google and Apple – was reportedly being built by Chinese iPhone manufacturer Pegatron and had an in-cell touchscreen with a magnesium-alloy casing made by LG. Then the Cambridge Analytica fallout hit.
Following the outrage that came from reports that Facebook shared personal details of millions of people with data analytics firm, Cambridge Analytica, a report suggested Mark Zuckerberg’s company had decided to shelve the smart speaker plans until things died down.
According to Bloomberg, the speaker was supposed to be shown off in May and would have formed part of Facebook’s global domination. Now, patent files have at least given us a glimpse into what such a device could have/will look like if it’s ever released.
Filed in 2016, and awarded to Facebook this week, the patent describes a simple “ornamental design for an electronic device” and is accompanied by the most basic of drawings showing a small rectangular box, similar to the bridge sold with some Sonos systems. That’s it.
The Amazon Echo Show
As concrete details are scant, it’s unclear whether Facebook intends to package the electronic device with an AI voice assistant that would help you create posts and events, or search through your Facebook feed. Back in September, Facebook’s head of Messenger David Marcus told TechCrunch the company wasn’t working on voice technology – but in 2015 it bought voice-command developer Wit.ai, indicating it could well be fiddling with it in the background. If Facebook’s speaker did launch without such a feature, it would almost certainly be dead on arrival.
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The challenges facing Facebook
The social media behemoth doesn’t currently have a hand in the connected home environment like its technological peers. Without developing such a device, Facebook would look like it’s not keeping up with the companies it perceives itself as going head-to-head with. However, up against devices such as Amazon Echo and Google Home, we can’t really see much need for Apple’s HomePod, let alone a Facebook-powered device. Not to mention that Amazon, Google and Apple all have their own music and video streaming services to drive subscriptions – Facebook does not.
Facebook also doesn’t have a strong past in the hardware game. Back in 2013, it tried to release Facebook Home on a dedicated HTC handset. By the end of its experiment, phones were practically being given away for free due to a total lack of interest. Even the Facebook Home launcher on Android failed to gain traction – those REALLY ANNOYING floating Messenger Chat Heads are its only legacy.
By including a screen in its rumoured device, Facebook could be hoping to stand apart from the crowd, but Amazon already has the Echo Show – an Echo speaker with a built-in touchscreen. A screen also has the downside of opening up your private Facebook feed to others. Most people would prefer to browse their Facebook feeds via their phones, rather than on a central home hub. It keeps things private and personal, sharing it with others only when you feel comfortable to do so. Imagine having everything visible on a panel displayed in the heart of your home; we can’t see younger family members or those who share a home with others (hello, almost anyone living in a city) loving such a prospect.
Google’s screenless Google Home smart speaker and home hub
Privacy is also a big issue. People may be worried about what Google knows about them, but as it offers up a plethora of services in exchange, most give them a free pass. Amazon is similar, but Jeff Bezos is only really interested in ecommerce data, and Apple has continually said it has zero interest in your digital footprint (although I don’t quite believe them).
Facebook, on the other hand, loves your data. It loves to push relevant content to you, it loves to sell you things and use your personal information to let advertisers put together personality maps about their target demographics. And the potential pitfalls and dangers of such practices have been highlighted with the Cambridge Analytica debacle. People already feel fearful of the amount of information Facebook knows about their personal lives, so why would they opt to bring an always-on, Facebook-connected microphone into their homes?
What’s more, if Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg did run for US presidency in 2020, would people feel comfortable owning a Facebook device like the one rumoured to be in development?
Facebook’s connected trump card
It’s not all doom and gloom for a Facebook-made smart device, since it has a potential trump card over everything else on the market – parity.
Apple’s Siri-enabled HomePod
Due to the siloing of services, Google Home can’t make use of Amazon’s Prime Video nor Music services. Conversely, Amazon Echo has no Google Cast nor Google Music, Play, or Video. Neither platform has a decent messaging app, and it’s unlikely Amazon Echo Show will support Facebook integration for the few curious enough to try it.
Facebook could easily bring together a decent messaging network with solid voice and video calling in your home. It also has the potential to offer both Google Cast and support for the Amazon Fire TV Stick – perhaps even Apple’s AirPlay. It sits in a middle ground where, despite perceiving itself as a rival company, Google, Amazon and Apple aren’t particularly phased by it occupying the same space.
Facebook also has another ace up its sleeve, too: the top-secret development lab where this smart speaker is rumoured to be being developed is actually up to some pretty cool things.
Known as Building 8, this development arm of Facebook has already worked on tech to let people type with their thoughts or “hear” through their skin. It’s also the team responsible for developing Facebook’s rumoured modular phone. Building 8 seems to be a place filled with interesting ideas, so it’s possible that this rumoured smart speaker is far more than it seems.
You only need to look to the advancements Facebook has made in the virtual-reality space since buying Oculus. If this Facebook home hub could become a portal to wireless VR play though the in-development, untethered “Santa Cruz” prototype Rift headset, this could be an exciting prospect after all.