By Alex Heath

Facebook is about to jump into the consumer hardware business in a big way with a video chat device named "Portal," which will put it in direct competition with Amazon’s hugely popular line of Echo voice-controlled devices, Cheddar has learned.

The device is designed to work in the home and represents Facebook’s first serious foray into selling consumer hardware, people familiar with the matter said. Rather than position the device as a smart assistant akin to Amazon’s Echo speakers, Facebook intends to pitch Portal as a way for families and friends to stay connected through video chatting and other social features.

Facebook plans a formal product introduction in early May at its annual developer conference and hopes to ship the device in the second half of 2018.

Like Amazon’s screen-equipped Echo Show, Facebook’s Portal is designed to work indoors and be controlled through voice commands. According to people familiar with Facebook’s plans, Portal will be equipped with a wide-angle lens that is capable of recognizing individual faces and associating them with their Facebook accounts.

The world’s largest social network has been using facial recognition for years and recently started notifying users if their faces appear in photos they aren’t tagged in.

Facebook also intends to let Portal access outside streaming services like Spotify and Netflix. The company recently signed sweeping music licensing deals with Sony/ATV and Universal Music Group.

A Facebook spokesperson declined to comment for this story.

Portal will be the first product to emerge from Facebook’s troubled consumer hardware lab, Building 8. Regina Dugan, the former Google and DARPA exec Facebook hired to lead the division, suddenly departed last year after 18 months on the job. Her exit came as numerous other high-level staffers left the division in 2017.

Veteran Facebook ad exec Andrew Bosworth was appointed last summer to lead all of the company’s hardware efforts, including its separate Oculus virtual reality business.

With Building 8, Facebook hopes to eventually sell a suite of consumer products that can compete with offerings from the likes of Amazon, Google, and Apple. Facebook employees have internally referred to the video chat device with the codename "Aloha" but recently settled on the name Portal — an indication that product development has progressed even as there’s been turnover in Building 8’s upper ranks.

Facebook is currently planning to price Portal at $499 but could decide to lower the price to further spur consumer adoption. (Amazon, by contrast, sells the Echo Show for $230.) CEO Mark Zuckerberg has told employees that he doesn’t care if the device generates profit, but rather wants it to change user behavior and encourage phone-like usage among owners.

Portal will be sold by Facebook through pop-up stores and online, people familiar with the matter said. Facebook’s Oculus VR division is separately planning to release a cheaper standalone headset called Oculus Go this year.