Turn Your HDTV into a Digital Art Canvas

You no longer need to be a multi-billionaire to have large-scale digital art in your home.

When Bill Gates built his 40,000-square-foot mansion on Lake Washington in the early 1990s, one of the most talked-about features was a 22-foot-wide, rear-projection video wall in the reception hall, showing digitized versions of fine art, historic photographs, and the like. Gates founded Corbis, now one of the world’s largest digital stock photo agencies, on the theory that many other people would also enjoy watching a rotating selection of paintings and photographs on large-screen displays in their homes.

At the time, that wasn’t exactly affordable for the hoi polloi. But thanks to good old Moore’s Law—which applies to the transistors in LCD and plasma screens as much as it does to those inside CPUs—the hardware required to turn your own home into a digital art museum is finally within reach. All you need is a high-definition flat-screen TV (incredibly, 42-inch versions with full 1,080-pixel vertical resolution are now available for under $1,000); a Windows or Macintosh computer; and a cable to hook the computer’s external monitor port to your TV’s video input jacks. (I recently got a VGA-to-DVI cable for $22 at CablesToGo.com.)

Vermeer’s “Girl with a Pearl Earring” on GalleryPlayerOnce you’ve connected your PC to your TV—which may take some fiddling, as you’ll need to go into your computer’s control panel and pick the proper external-monitor display settings—there are two pathways to watching great high-definition images. If you don’t mind shelling out a few extra bucks for some fantastic professionally produced imagery, I highly recommend a visit to GalleryPlayer. This small Seattle company was founded in 2003 and originally provided digital images from Corbis for large displays in commercial spaces such as hotels and offices; to use it, you needed to buy a $3,000 image server and pay $195 per month for a rotating selection of images. But in a measure of how quickly the digital-imaging market has changed, GalleryPlayer’s software is now free (Windows only, sadly) and images, which can be purchased and downloaded over the Internet, cost about $1 apiece—less if you buy them in packs.

GalleryPlayer has a huge library of images to choose from, ranging from National Geographic nature photography to fine art from some of the world’s best museums, including Boston’s own Museum of Fine Arts. Each image is accompanied by a museum-style caption that appears on screen briefly, telling you about the image’s provenance. If you do try GalleryPlayer, I recommend splurging early—there’s a 50 percent discount on your first purchase.

Slide show using Slickr on my Sharp 32″ HDTVIf you’re a digital photographer, there are two perfectly good alternatives to GalleryPlayer that will cost you absolutely nothing: Slickr (for Windows) and FlickrFan (for the Mac). Technically, these free programs are screen savers—but if you hook your computer up to your HDTV and set your computer’s power options so that the screen never shuts down, you’ve got an instant digital art exhibit. What’s neat about these programs is that they’ll display either photos stored in specific folders on your computer or pictures you’ve uploaded to your Flickr photo-sharing account. Both programs also animate your photos in “Ken Burns” style, meaning they slide gracefully across the screen—a nice break from GalleryPlayer’s static images. If you’ve got a lot of old photos that you never bother to look at on your PC, Slickr and FlickrFan offer a great way to resurrect them.

For Boston residents, or anyone else who gets their cable TV service from Comcast, there’s an extra piece of good news. If you already have an HDTV and a Comcast high-definition set-top box, you can watch high-definition digital slide shows from GalleryPlayer without the need for a PC or special gallery software.

GalleryPlayer shows are a free part of the On Demand service from Comcast. But they’re buried several levels deep in the On Demand menu, so many customers don’t even know about them. To find them, click the On Demand button on your Comcast remote, then choose “HD On Demand,” then “TV Entertainment,” then “GalleryPlayer.” You’ll see a selection of about ten half-hour shows, each comprised of about 30 stunning, high-resolution photos or paintings set to pleasant jazz, classical, and New Age background tunes. The images change every month, and cover themes such as African wildlife, underwater photography, space imagery, Van Gogh paintings, and autumn in New England.

Boot up GalleryPlayer, Slickr, or FlickrFan at your next cocktail party and your guests will think you’re the Bill Gates of your block.

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Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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