Testing: Electric Objects Digital Art Frame

By Norman Chan

A digital picture frame that's anti-slideshow.

Last year, I backed the Electric Objects Kickstarter, a campaign to produce a digital picture frame built from a 23-inch 1080p panel and integrated ARM computer. It's something that, on paper, sounds like something you could just build yourself--you can buy a similarly-sized IPS panel for under $150 and attach it to a $35 Raspberry Pi. What Electric Objects is going for, however, seems to be an elegant and intentional design in both the hardware and software--a complete solution that works right out of the box. That box arrived earlier this month, and I've been using the Electric Objects EO1 frame for the past week. As a screenprint collector, here's what I think about it so far, and what it's trying to accomplish.

On the hardware side, the display itself is a matte 23-inch 1080p panel with a 250 nit backlight--pretty standard for 16:9 monitor you can get from monitor makers like Dell. The custom stuff is all in the frame around that panel to make it look like a framed piece of art. The 3/4-inch bezel is in line with the frames I like for my 18x24 screenprints, is even on all sizes, and has a slightly angled taper toward the back. The "frame" itself isn't as thick as most monitors, but the computer hardware--a 1GHz dual-core Cortex-A9 system with built-in Wi-Fi and bluetooth--bulges from the back, so it does float a little bit off the wall. Mounting hardware is included.

The quality of the screen is good, with all the perks of an IPS panel: good color reproduction, high contrast, and wide viewing angles. It being matte also helps a lot with visibility in daylight, though it will look washed out from certain reflective angles. Of course, the LCD has downsides as well, as images with black backgrounds don't look completely black in the dark (even with auto-brightness), and 250 nits isn't bright enough to make images pop in a fully day-lit room. I didn't notice any backlight bleed, though. With the intent of keeping the hardware as simple as possible, there's no OSD for calibrating the display--only a single button for putting the EO1 to sleep when you don't want it on.

Other than the fact that this is an active backlit display, the most obvious difference between this and a piece of printed art is the image resolution. 1080p is sufficient for putting up photos or animated GIFs and appreciating them from afar, but get up close to the EO1 and you're going to notice the pixels. One of the things I love about screenprints is being able to scrutinize the minute details and nuances natural to the printing process. Even with fine digital prints, there's a physicality in the CMYK separations that lets you know how an artist intended the work to be seen when you put your eyeball up to the paper. You can't do that here--art on the EO1 is meant to be appreciated from at least a few feet away.

But these limitations, in the eyes of EO1's creators, are features inherent to their vision of the digital canvas. Digital art is fundamentally different than printed art, and maybe you're supposed to experience and enjoy it differently. And the most notable "feature" of the Electric Objects display is its inability to run slideshows.

The makers of the EO1 intentionally designed the experience so that users feel committed to the art they put in the frame. To that end, there is no interface on the device itself--everything is controlled with either a simple smartphone app or the Electric Objects website. From those places, you can browse a public gallery of artwork submitted by other users, or upload your own (which can be either public or private). Uploading can be as simple as pasting a link to an animated GIF found on Tumblr, which then can be centered or blown up to fill the EO1's 16:9 screen. Or as I should put it, 9:16 aspect ratio, since portrait is the only orientation supported. There's no option to rotate images for landscape view (though that's easy enough to manually do), and as mentioned earlier, no option to automatically cycle through a series of images or tie the EO1 to something like a Flickr gallery.

And that's the point--the experience here is curated by its design restrictions. The art you put on EO1 is meant to stay on your screen and fade into the background of your living or workspace, not be something that pulls your attention whenever you walk into the room. How long you keep an individual piece of art displayed on the EO1 is tracked and tied to your account, so you can see what pieces are resonating with other users. In the first two days of using the display, I uploaded, tested, and swapped out about a dozen different pieces of art until I found one that was right for the space I set the device up in. Since then, I've kept it on an image--a photograph of a gothic spaceship--that feels like it belongs among the other framed prints and objects in my living room.

In one sense, the art you put on the EO1 is like the wallpaper you set up for your PC or smartphone: something you can swap out from time to time, but more likely than not commit to for an extended duration (how often do you change your phone's background image?). If the proper analogy for the EO1 is a computer's wallpaper, then the image on the EO1 is supposed to live in the background; instead of being a backdrop to desktop icons, it's a backdrop to the real-world objects on your desk or living space. It's an interesting notion for digital art that bears some consideration. (I also don't know if this first version of Electric Objects is right for the home--it may be better suited for your office space, where running 35 watts for art's sake is on the company dime.)

But experimenting with this concept of putting some physicality and permanence to the digital isn't cheap--Electric Objects EO1 cost $300 for Kickstarter backers and now retails for $500. That's a lot, even with the custom hardware and software (including backend) development. The experience does leave much to be desired--I feel like EO1 could be thinner have a better-integrated computer component, and I'm not sure if the 9:16 aspect ratio was chosen just because of panel availability. It'll be interesting to see if future iterations of Electric Objects will adopt sizes and aspect ratios that look less like computer monitors--an 18x24 display or even a 12x36 panel would be striking.

When I browse art prints at conventions, galleries, or web stores, one thing I keep in mind is the difference between a piece I like because it's something I would want to hang up on a wall, or a piece that would look more suitable on a monitor or phone's locks screen. The difference between something that would be great as wall art and something that would make great digital wallpaper is a matter of personal taste, but an important one (I make the same distinction for t-shirts). Wall art demands to be hung, wallpaper ends up sitting in a portfolio. If anything, Electric Objects gives a place to the artwork that I don't have to have in print--it's all about finding the right medium for the content.

Electric Objects EO1 is available for pre-order now with units shipping in September.