I have many connected screens in my life, and they are all built to deliver me an endless flow of information, entertainment, and distraction. But recently I spent a little time with the EO1, the first device from New York startup Electric Objects. It's a handsome digital frame meant to showcase art and provide the antithesis of the "devices designed for distraction, living between texts, tweets, football games, and emails from work." After a hard day of work on the content farm, jacked into 10 tabs at all times, the EO1 delivered a much needed dose of tranquility.
Jacked into ten tabs at all times
You could quibble that if I was really looking to disconnect I would be better off with good old-fashioned oil on canvas. But the thing I enjoyed about the EO1 was that it found the right medium between the web and analog eras. Instead of entering the intimidating and often expensive world of galleries, I can browse through the app for original artwork or uploads from community members. The software has the sparse look of a minimalist Tumblr feed, offering you the choice to bookmark art you like or display it on your device. It won't, however, set the images to rotate through a slide show, and there are no notifications when a new work is available. You choose the piece, and it just stays there, slowly seeping into your brain.
"It’s been a slightly unusual experience because you don’t normally buy electronics for them to just sit there," said Graham Hicks, a product designer living in San Francisco and EO1 beta tester. Hicks studied industrial design and worked on digital products at IDEO, Square, and Prismatic. He was never a real art collector but always loved a good museum. "There’s always buttons to push or menus to explore. But with EO1 there’s just the choice of what to display, what you want to look at today. And that shifts your focus to the art itself rather than device."
"Shifts your focus to the art itself rather than device."
I kept the EO1 running in my home for about five days. The animated pieces, changing subtly over time, were equally entrancing to my two-year-old son and 65-year-old father. Adding to the sense that the device was alive, the screen also dealt well with the shift between day and night, appearing more like a paper canvas when exposed to sunlight and offering a strong glow at night. At first I was tempted to change the image multiple times a day. But slowly my metabolism moved to match the more contemplative mood of the device.
The idea of paying for fine art, or treating it like an investment vehicle as so many wealthy buyers now do, scares me. Electric Objects hopes to keep things simple, aligning with the business users are familiar with from their streaming video and music services. "We will probably start with the Netflix model where a subscription gets you access to all the original artwork," says Jake Levine, the company's CEO.
Of course, like most people, the majority of the art I end up consuming are images I can find on the internet for free. "Most of the stuff I like is really expensive," says Dennis Crowley, CEO of Foursquare and an investor in Electric Objects. "Now I go to the museum, take a picture, and throw it up. I have it but it's electronic, and brighter."
In addition to $1.7 million in venture funding, the company raised $787,612 on Kickstarter last year to bring their first batch of screens to life. Today they launched a second crowdfunding campaign, this time to pay for original artwork created with data from a survey sent to users. The goal is to democratize the artistic commission, giving people a piece that is unique to them, but that doesn't cost much.
The EO1 retails for $399 and is sold out through September. It's a strange gadget, but one that gave me a lot of pleasure during my testing. I don't know if it will ever become a mass market device, especially at that price. But we exist in a world where even Apple is designing devices to help us disconnect from our phones, to check in less often, to look up at the world around us. Most everyone, and especially in the tech world, has felt the push and pull of information overload. The EO1 is a nice antidote to that.