New England’s Vizit Turns the Digital Photo Frame from a Dumb Display into a Sophisticated Media Hub

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e-mailing them to the frame’s private account. (Only users authorized by the frame owner can send photos.) And just as in the social-networking world, Vizit owners can instruct the system to check other photo-sharing sites, like Flickr or Photobucket, for new photos uploaded by authorized friends or family members.

To make it impossible for users to get lost in a sea of controls and drop-down menus, Growney’s team designed a user interface for the touchscreen dominated by big left and right arrows (for moving between photos manually) and a “carousel” menu that makes it easy to flip between controls for favoriting, removing, rotating, and sharing photos.

That last function—sharing—isn’t something I’ve seen in any other digital frame. “Say I love this photo and I want to pay it forward and send it off to my Aunt Jean,” says Growney. “I can e-mail it to any contact in VizitMe address book right from the device.”

Another intriguing and potentially lucrative feature is the ability to order photo-related products—prints, postcards, posters, mugs, and “brag books” consisting of up to 24 hand-picked images—directly from the device’s touchscreen. Growney says Isabella is partnering with Pixxlz, an eco-friendly printing company affiliated with the Boston-based Copy Copy chain, to let frame owners buy such products.

It’s all part of a major reinvention of the digital photo frame—from a dumb display into something closer to a media hub. “To date, most manufacturers have just treated the people who own frames as observers,” says Growney. “Now a person with a device can interact with their photo collection, and not just be at the end of the photo-sharing experience.”

The Pixxlz partnership isn’t Isabella’s only local connection. In fact, the story of Vizit is a distinctly East Coast tale, which is itself rather unusual in the consumer electronics business.

Growney says the device was designed at Isabella starting about 15 months ago. (The company, which is named after Growney’s 4-year-old daughter, shares an office with Rudyard Partners and is one of four startups the firm is incubating.) Orchid Technologies Engineering & Consulting of Maynard, MA, handled the hardware engineering, and MapleLeaf Software in Hudson, NH, created the embedded user-interface software.

Inevitably, the hardware is being assembled in China, but the plant owner—RDI Electronics—is based in Mt. Kisco, NY. Amazon and the Vizit website will be the main places to buy the device, but Isabella chose another local company to handle logistics and customer fulfillment. (Growney couldn’t name it, but said it’s in Westborough, MA.)

“It’s definitely possible to build a consumer device company in New England,” says Growney. “You can find the talent. It may be counterintuitive for anyone doing consumer hardware, but we make a deliberate effort to invest in New England.”

Between now and October 30, when the Vizit goes on sale, the company has to make a few decisions, like exactly how much the gadget will cost. And because the retail price won’t cover the cellular service, they’ll have to settle on the size of the monthly subscription, and whether to offer buyers a bundled version with, for example, a year’s service built into the price. And not least among the company’s anxieties is whether Vizit will be selected for Oprah’s holiday “O List”—it was still in the running as of last week, Growney says. (An endorsement from Oprah before the 2008 holidays catapulted the Amazon Kindle—which also has a built-in cellular modem and was, in some ways, the inspiration for Vizit, Growney says—into the bestseller category.)

But regardless of what Oprah thinks, the Vizit frame could get a lot of people to take a new look at digital photo frames. “Photos are an enormous content sector that is increasing every day,” says Growney. “The real issue has always been how do they get distributed?” For those willing to pay a premium, Isabella Products has come up with one of the best solutions yet.

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

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