Facebook announced its new Portal hardware today, a limited-purpose device that allows users to video chat on Facebook almost exclusively. (Unless you're not in the US, in which case, no Portal for you.) And there’s something strangely retro about the concept: This is the standalone videophone device that George Jetson had in the 1960s—the device that we were supposed to skip over.
The history of the videophone is a fascinating case study in how the future never arrives quite as we imagined. The latter half of the 20th century featured all kinds of predictions for the videophone as a standalone device. It was going to be a product that either sat on your desk or was large enough to stand on the ground. Some might be mounted on the wall, and phone companies even imagined large video payphones, complete with instant language translation. But they all had one thing in common: They were appliances used for just one purpose.
A videophone device in the 1962-63 version of The Jetsons (Screenshot: The Jetsons/Hanna-Barbera/Warner Bros)
In reality, the videophone snuck up on us through other devices. They appeared as just one of many functions in our computers and our smartphones. After literally decades of telling us that the videophone would be an everyday appliance like a toaster that would exist in our homes as a dedicated video chat device, we got it in a different form with apps like Skype, Google Hangouts, and FaceTime.
The Portal comes in two different models, the Portal and the larger Portal Plus. And Facebook will tell you that this isn’t George Jetson’s videophone. It tracks you around your room and has other slick features like voice control with Alexa and some other minor abilities like checking the weather. But it’s almost entirely made for video calls. No web browser, no Instagram, no WhatsApp, and no video recording. You can’t even look at regular Facebook on the device. The Portal is primarily for video calls through Facebook.
Just five years ago, I was writing about the videophone as if this new device from Facebook would never arrive. I wrote about the videophone’s appearance in the 1927 film Metropolis, the way that it was hyped at both the 1939 and 1964 New York World’s Fair, and the sleek futurism of videophones in the 1960s version of The Jetsons. I was convinced that, with the advent of Skype, we wouldn’t see the rise of a standalone videophone product. And I was wrong. At least for now.
A videophone in the 1955 short film The Future is Now (Screenshot: The Future Is Now)
Facebook’s marketing team probably knows what it’s doing. I’m sure they’ve tested this thing inside and out and have held plenty of focus groups with Americans who swear that the Portal would be really cool to have so that you don’t have to hold your phone up awkwardly for a video call. But only time will tell if people actually want a dedicated videophone device.
And all of this is to say nothing of the privacy concerns. Roughly one in four American Facebook users have deleted the app in the past year, according to Pew Research. And that was before a recent enormous hack of Facebook exposed the personal data of some 50 million users.
Whether it’s misusing consumer data or literally being accused by the United Nations of fuelling genocide, Facebook has proven to be a net negative for humanity. But if you’re one of the many people who doesn’t give a shit about anything, the Portal might be for you. Screw it. The world’s going to burn anyway, right? [Facebook]