A Portal to Digital Inclusion?

So, Digital Inclusion colleagues, what do we think of Portal by Facebook? If you haven’t seen it, basically it’s a video conferencing kit, which comes in four different forms, the Portal TV, which plugs into your TV and sits on top of the set, the Portal, a 10 inch, Digital Photo frame-like device with video calling and Alexa built-in, the Portal mini, basically the same thing but 8 inches, and the Portal+, which gaves the same funcitonality in a device with an HD, 15.6 inch screen which pivots to differing orientations. One of the differences it is offering compared to other video conferencing set ups is that the camera follows the person around the room, and the microphones are designed to pick up the voice wherever it comes from. The marketing around it has focused on images of people, particularly older people, using it to communicate with their families in other parts of the world.

I have written in the past that I think video conferencing has an important, and largely unacknowledged, part to play in digital inclusion. I wrote here about the idea of Serendipity Screens, and here about Technology-Enabled Nattering. Video conferencing has been around since the advent of the internet, or even before, but it has yet to hit the mainstream, and it still hasn’t broken through to any great extent into the realm of family communications with the older generations. Will Portal be the device (or devices) to break through? Certiainly I think linking it to the TV will appeal to some who have not seen any reason for owning a computer, a tablet or a smartphone. And the photo frame-like devices may also break through with the non-technology owner. Portal uses WhatsApp to make its video calls, and you can only call people who have WhatsApp or Facebook accounts. We all know there are lots of privacy concerns around Facebook and its associated companies, so some will steer clear of Portal because of that. Facebook appears to be trying to address some of those issues by providing sliding covers for the cameras in the devices which offers some degree of comfort that they are not watching us all the time.

In all aspects of technology development there usually comes along a device or an app that suddenly transforms people’s attitudes and then everybody wants one. The example I often cite is the iPod, which was by far not the first mp3 player, but Apple adapted the concept in ways that made them must-haves to the mass market. Whether the Portal is the iPod of video conferencing remains to be seen, but it is interesting to see that some of the approaches to video which myself and other digital inclusion advocates have been promoting for years are being used to promote this set of devices.

Is Portal really a game-changer for digital inclusion?


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9 thoughts on “A Portal to Digital Inclusion?

  1. I think like a lot of these things, digital inclusion workers immediately see the potential before end users are convinced, and I certainly sometimes feel the tension of not wanting to foist tech on people – but at the same wanting to go “but it’s so coooool, c’mon, try it!”

    Within my older people’s groups I’ve only got a couple who do video chat, primarily due to having long-distance family who are tech savvy.

    And at this time of year I regularly remind people about digital workarounds to potential bad weather (home shopping, Facebook, prescription delivery etc – and video chat falls into this).

    I’m wondering if the people who would benefit from the Portal most are actually those who are lacking the infrastructure around it. If someone has broadband, wifi, a Facebook account or a working understanding of WhatsApp – they’re possibly socially included enough to not immediately see the benefits.

    I’ve recently had great success introducing my parents to the Google mini, which they’ve taken to incredibly quickly. I’m wondering if care homes and supported living accommodation are the first places where voice assistants and Portals would be big wins. VR is getting all the headlines there at the moment, but this is a much easier win.

    As for the tech itself, I’d be tempted to choose a tablet which could do a number of things rather than a dedicated solution, but I’m just thrifty!

    • Thanks Alastair. I think the reason why some, at least, of the Portal kit looks like things you’d be happy complementing your funiture is that non-digitally savvy people typically don’t have pieces of IT kit lying around the house. If they own a device, it will probably be in a cupboard or draw somewhere, and be switched off. If someone wants to video call them, it’s a non-starter unless they phone them first and set it all up. I am showing my age here, but some aspects of Portal remind me of the portraits on the wall of the Tracy family in Thunderbirds whose eyes lit up when they wanted to speak to base.

  2. Pingback: It’s now official: Video Chat produces “all the feels” | John Popham's Random Musings

  3. Pingback: A Portal to Digital Inclusion? — John Popham’s Random Musings – Weevles Updates Disabled Bloggers Team

  4. I am disabled with a moderate Learning Disability and promote our project through my Digital Champion status. The more we raise awareness the more empowered we are.

  5. Pingback: 2020 Vision | John Popham's Random Musings

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