Last week, a source in the Taiwanese supply chain reported that Facebook has entered into small production on a smart home speaker with a touchscreen, preparing to compete with companies like Apple and Amazon in the smart speaker market. A report by Bloomberg this week has continued that rumor, and added onto it by claiming the company is in fact working on two separate speaker devices to release to the public, and that it’s hiring from Apple to get a “Siri-style” AI voice assistant up and running for the devices’ launch.
Coming out of Facebook’s Building 8 lab, today’s report confirmed many of the features already discussed regarding the touchscreen-enabled speaker. Facebook plans to launch it with a screen size between 13 and 15 inches, a wide-angle lens, and microphones and speakers all powered by artificial intelligence. The screen rests on a thin, vertical stand and Facebook is now deciding whether the UI will run on a version of Android or if it will build its own OS, according to people familiar with the plans.
Although the touchscreen speaker is only in the prototype stage, Facebook has begun testing it in employee homes.
Featuring a laptop-sized touchscreen, the device represents a new product category and could be announced as soon as next spring’s F8 developer conference, according to people familiar with the matter. They say the large screen and smart camera technology could help farflung people feel like they’re in the same room, which aligns with Chief Executive Officer Mark Zuckerberg’s mission of bringing Facebook users closer together. The device is in the prototype phase but is already being tested in people’s homes.
The advanced smart speaker will be aimed at video calling and connecting friends and family members across long distances, with Facebook testing a way for its camera to automatically scan a user in its range, lock onto them, and track their movements to keep them in shot during a video call. A 360-degree camera was a possibility at one point during the touchscreen device’s development, but now it’s “unlikely” to be ready in time for Facebook’s rumored launch of early 2018, likely ahead of or around the company’s annual F8 conference in the spring.
In addition, Facebook is working on “at least one other product,” representing a more basic and “standalone” smart speaker that would be aimed at competing with the Amazon Echo and Google Home. It’s rumored that the standalone speaker would be priced “in the low $100 range,” coming in under the flagship Echo ($180) and Google Home ($130). On the higher end, the touchscreen speaker made by Facebook would be priced at “a few hundred dollars.”
In order to get a helpful AI assistant on both devices, Facebook is looking at hiring some “Apple Inc. veterans” to work at Building 8 and help create the social network company’s own version of assistants like Siri and Alexa. The exact Apple veterans that Facebook is hiring were not specified in the report.
The social media giant is working on at least one other product — a standalone smart speaker that would compete with the Amazon Echo and Google Home, said the people, who asked not be named discussing unannounced products. Facebook is hiring Apple Inc. veterans to help it create a Siri-style voice assistant that would run on both devices, they said.
Last week’s supply chain sources claimed that Facebook’s smart speaker would be mostly controlled through the touchscreen and lack voice controls, but now Bloomberg‘s sources suggest the company is in fact working to include such voice-activated features. People close to the plans also mentioned that Facebook is prepared to abandon the cheaper, more basic speaker and pivot to prioritizing the touchscreen-enabled speaker instead, due to potentially intense competition in the standalone smart speaker market.
Apple will finally enter the same space later this year with the HomePod, which the company is billing as primarily a high-quality music playback device that also has helpful smart features that can be controlled by Siri. HomePod will sell for $350 when it launches this December.
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