With all the issues facing us today—a global pandemic, election interference, climate change—don’t we all have better things to do than fuss over how we look during conference calls? And yet, despite being nowhere near death (I think), it takes a remarkable amount of effort to make me look alive and healthy for a 30-minute e-face to e-face meeting.
There are so many things to figure out. Is the lighting right? Is the camera positioned properly? Can they hear me OK? Your computer is a machine with vast capabilities, but it probably doesn’t have the best camera, speaker, or microphone. For months now, we’ve all been staring at each other in our makeshift spare bedrooms or closets or garages, filming our own separate versions of The Blair Witch Project. Even the most tech-savvy of my colleagues loom like giant, hairy shadows in our Zooms.
There’s now a booming industry of gadgets for turning a computer into a home video studio: webcams, laptop stands, speakers, lights. But I have a solution that will be cheaper, easier, and probably work better: Just Zoom on a Facebook Portal.
I was deeply conflicted when I wrote my review of the Portal last year, given Facebook’s long history of queasy-making decisions. I couldn’t in good conscience express unqualified support of a company that has done pretty much everything it can to make its users deeply distrustful, not when I myself use Facebook only very circumspectly.
However, it turns out that I will happily throw all my principles out the window if Facebook will alleviate the torture of long-distance grandparent hell. The Portal is still the only device that will keep my 3- and 5-year-old on a video call with their relatives for longer than five seconds. My parents call once a week and use the Portal's built-in Story Time feature, reading Todd Parr's The Underwear Book to my kids as augmented-reality underpants appear on my mom's head on the screen. Watching this all happen makes me feel … happy, sad, and weirdly triumphant? It's a feeling unique to 2020 parenthood that describes the sensation of having salvaged the smallest speck of joy out of the wreck of this year.
About a month ago, Facebook announced the Portal was going to start offering support for videoconferencing services—mainly Zoom, but also WebEx, BlueJeans, and GoToMeeting. Initially, I didn’t really want to repurpose the Sticky Kid Story Time Thing for work. But then I had a day of three consecutive hours’ worth of meetings and thought, well, the Portal couldn’t make this any worse.
I have the 10-inch Portal (there’s also a mini, large, and TV version). It’s about the size of a digital picture frame and nestles naturally on the left side of my laptop on its stand. It took forever (OK, half an hour) to update the software, find the Zoom app, and log in before my meeting. It’s also a minor pain point to manually tap in the meeting code on the Portal's touchscreen; if I was on my computer, I could simply click a link. But now, I am a convert.
Live From the Studio
My coworkers noticed the change immediately. The Portal's standout feature is its ability to recognize humans in the shot and move the camera around to keep faces clearly visible. On the other end of the line, the effect is eye-catching. It’s hard to not notice your one coworker in a corner of the gallery view, chugging coffee, knees tucked up in the kitchen chair as the camera slowly pans and zooms to keep her perfectly in frame while everyone else’s head and shoulders remain totally still.
Is this why videoconferencing is so tiring? Unless you’re an Instagram influencer, you’re probably not accustomed to looking at yourself constantly, or having to stay put in the same position for hours at a time. Until I didn’t have to do it anymore, I didn’t realize how hard it is to keep yourself properly lit and positioned in the frame. It’s exhausting.
But a Portal can keep a 5-year-old framed and audible while she's running around the living room, showing grandparents her Lego sets and jumping on the couch. Compared to that, making you, a mostly stationary adult human, look good is a piece of cake. The Portal team says it worked with award-winning filmmakers to optimize the auto-pan and zoom features of the device, and it shows.
Talking or attending meetings just feels so much more natural when I don’t have to worry about my lighting, being at the correct angle, or even maintaining eye contact. I can do something as ordinary as sit comfortably in my chair, knowing that the Portal will find the correct framing for me.
And let’s talk about sound: No more headphones. No more adjusting the volume on your computer’s irritating, tinny speaker system, or plugging in your enormous Yeti microphone. The Portal has a big, round, hand-sized speaker on the back that sounds great, and a four-microphone array that will pick you up even if you’ve turned your head away to chug your 47th coffee.
When the Portal first came out two years ago, the idea of a device dedicated solely to video calling was a little suspect. Our desks are already littered with camera-fied phones, tablets and computers. Do you really need a specific device just to call people? A device that has to be plugged in?
I don’t think any of us could have anticipated that many, if not all, of our social interactions would soon take place online. Months deep into the Covid-19 pandemic, owning a dedicated videophone makes as much sense as owning a dedicated refrigerator or a dedicated stove. Single-use devices make a lot of sense if they’re good at what they do, and if you use them a lot.
I also used to think the Portal was expensive. But now there’s a Portal Mini for $149, and tell me: How much have you spent, or are considering spending, on laptop stands, ring lights, mics, noise-canceling headphones, or other gadgets to make videoconferencing work better—and that probably won’t work as well as a Portal, anyway?
Just now, I participated in a videoconference where someone said I looked like a well-lit Laura Linney narrating a documentary, and not like a troll crouching at a desk in my dim garage while my children eat lunch in our open-plan house (another pandemic mistake, but that’s for another time). Who can put a price on that? Just make sure you wipe the fingerprints off before the important company-wide all-hands.