The digital picture frame is a gadget that hasn’t reached its full potential. Most are chintzy devices that can do little more than project endless slideshows and a visual aesthetic that would feel at home in the SkyMall catalog. What’s worse, many still require you to hassle with USB cords and SD cards to feed them images. Today a startup called Electric Objects is setting out to change that. It’s taken the basic concept of the digital picture frame and reimagined it as something bigger and more ambitious, a smart, internet-connected screen that was built as a platform for showcasing great art.
Electric Objects is the brainchild of Jake Levine, a former Betaworks employee who helped lead the resurrection of Digg. Levine was inspired by thinkers from Xerox Parc, who predicted back in the 1990s that the PC era would be followed by an era of "calm technology" in which computing would happen at the periphery of our awareness. "For the last 40 years computers have been about increasing our productivity or letting us play games," says Levine. "We’re building an ambient computer that contributes to your environment even if you don’t interact with it."
"An ambient computer that contributes to your environment even if you don’t interact with it.
After raising $1.7 million in venture capital to hire an initial team and putting the first hundred or so prototypes into the wild for testing, Electric Objects is launching a Kickstarter today to give anyone the chance to own a device called EO1. For $299, backers get a 23-inch, 1080p display with a white or black frame and a wall mount. The screen has no glass cover, an attempt to keep glare to an absolute minimum. Inside is a dual core processor with 2GB of RAM running a modified version of Android that does little more than launch a bare browser window to render images, animations, and web-based visualizations. Bill Cowles, who manages the hardware for Electric Objects, says the current prototype consumes as much electricity each day as the average light bulb, and that even if you leave a single image on for days, it won’t suffer from screen burn. The team is meeting with suppliers and manufacturing partners and will have to make some adjustments on the final parts and specs based on the final number of orders from the Kickstarter project.
The device will have an ambient light sensor, so it will become brighter when exposed to direct sunlight and dim so as not to overwhelm a dark room with its glow. It can be set to turn on and off at a certain time, and it has a few simple social features built in — you could set your screen to follow what’s displayed on a friend’s, for example. But overall it’s not a super smart box, and that is kind of the point. You set the artwork using the company’s website or mobile app and then, well, then you don’t do anything. The device is something more than a screen but less than a tablet: you can’t control it through touch, and while you could change the image as often as you like, the idea is to interject a little permanence into lives filled with far too many Twitter streams and browser tabs. "The user should be able to keep their distance from it," explains Levine. "Interaction turns it back into a computer. Distance helps preserve the kind of relationship we have with physical works of art."
For folks who can’t afford the real thing, EO1 is an easy way to get a nice variety of classic and contemporary art on your wall. At launch, a partnership with the New York Public Library will let users subscribe to packages of classical paintings and prints. But where the company really hopes the device will shine is displaying internet art, so it will also feature selections from the Museum of the Moving Image and the Betaworks startups Giphy and Digg that aim to showcase the best in highbrow animated GIFs. "There is a lot of great art being created on the internet and for the internet today, but no way for people to really showcase and savor it," Levine says. "Images are trapped on tiny phones or mixed in with a million tabs on your laptop. This device is purpose-built to make internet art look great."
The company is also trying to create its own community of creators who are making original works created just for Electric Objects, and has hired Zoë Salditch, formerly of the digital arts organization Rhizome, to manage relationships with independent artists and galleries. The EO1 will initially only be available in portrait orientation and a 16:9 aspect ratio, so that anyone creating for it won’t have to worry about multiple form factors. Levine and the Electric Object team have a running joke that any decision they make about the shape and size will "act as a creative constraint to further inspire the artists."
"The irony is not lost on me — that in 2014 our idea of an exploration is a return to what for centuries has been the norm."
The company says it will have its own app store of sorts, where it will showcase new offerings from artists for users to download. "People can use this for family photos, of course, but based on what we feature, we’re going to be pushing to create a community that’s more focused on art," says Levine. In the app store vein, the company will also be launching with an open API that it hopes will "inspire developers and artists to show us what they would do with a quiet, peripheral, ambient, always-on, connected screen."
Around 100 beta testers have been using the device, and Levine says many enjoy how little functionality it has compared to their phone or laptop. "The participants in this experiment are a living lab, an exploration into a new form of attention, one that’s been neglected by our always-be-updating, permission-to-send-you-notifications connected world," Levine wrote in a blog post. "The irony is not lost on me — that in 2014 our idea of an exploration is a return to what for centuries has been the norm: stillness, silence, contemplation."