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

9/22/09Follow @wroush

The digital photo frame is one of those consumer-electronics categories that seems perpetually poised to take off, but never quite gets airborne. I bought a Ceiva frame for my grandmother back in 2001—it plugged into a phone line and downloaded new pictures from the Ceiva website every night at 3 a.m. Today, things are pretty much the same. The displays of the latest models are brighter and crisper, and most come with memory-card slots instead of phone cords. But there has been surprisingly little innovation around the basic idea of the digital frame. They’re still just passive devices that sit on your desk or bookcase, cycling through the same pictures over and over until someone updates the memory card.

Isabella Products in Concord, MA, is trying to change that. On October 30, it will launch Vizit, which masquerades as a digital photo frame but is actually a sophisticated, two-way photo management device connected to a nationwide cellular data network. The product will have a price tag commensurate with its capabilities—in the $250 to $280 range, plus a monthly subscription fee. I know a lot of early adopters who won’t balk at that price, considering that the Vizit—the brainchild of local venture capitalist and Motorola veteran Matthew Growney—raises the bar for the whole category of digital frames, just as the iPhone did in the mobile world.

The Vizit is attractive, but much more importantly, it’s smart and it’s connected. “The beauty is not so much in the physical design, although our guys have come from places where design matters, like Motorola and Bose and Nike and Facebook,” says Growney. “To us, it’s about the connectedness of the device…it’s about managing the sharing experience.”

On the hardware side, Vizit has an impressively large screen, measuring 10.4 inches diagonally, which is 2.4 inches more than Ceiva’s largest frame. It has HD-quality resolution of 800 pixels by 600 pixels, compared to Ceiva’s 640 by 480.

But it’s the interactivity packed into the screen that really sets the device apart. Trust me, I’ve seen lots of these devices, and the Vizit—which I got to play with last week during a visit to Isabella’s office inside Concord’s historic old Damon Mill building—is unique.

For one thing, it’s a touchscreen device, which means there aren’t any cryptic buttons on the side or the back of the frame: all the controls are right on the display. For another, it’s got an elegant user interface that makes it easy to do things like rotating photos, choosing different slide show transition effects, or selecting which photo album you want to view.

It’s also got the built-in cellular modem, which means it can download photos from the Internet without having to be plugged into a phone line or an Ethernet cable or integrated into a home Wi-Fi network. And the modem doesn’t just grab photos from the network: it can also send instructions back, meaning you can do things like sharing your favorite photos with friends or relatives and ordering prints right from the frame’s screen.

In fact, Vizit is close to being a full-fledged tablet computer—albeit one that’s dedicated to handling photos. It’s got a 532-megahertz ARM 11 processor inside, running the Linux operating system and Adobe’s Flash Lite runtime environment, the same media-management system running on many newer mobile Internet devices, such as the Chumby Internet radio.

But all this power shouldn’t scare off the non-computer-literate. The controls are simple enough that owners, grandmothers included, will be able to manage all the device’s functions with ease—and without ever going to the accompanying website. (Though the website does account for much of the device’s power—more on that below.)

I got the whole story behind Vizit from Isabella founder and CEO Growney, who is also the founder of Concord, MA-based private equity firm Rudyard Partners and was formerly the managing director of Motorola Ventures, the venture capital arm of the electronics giant.

The general inspiration behind Isabella Products, Growney says, came from one market observation and one personal experience. The market observation was that the ubiquity of digital cameras and camera phones means that consumers have stored up between 70 billion and 100 billion digital photos, fewer than 1 in 10 of which are ever shared (although Facebook users upload some 14 million photos every day, making the online social network the world’s largest photo-sharing site). The personal experience? “My mother didn’t feel like a grandmother because she couldn’t ever see her grandchildren, living in Chicago,” says Growney, with tongue in cheek. “Her solution was to come and live with us for months at a time. I said, ‘We can solve this problem with technology.’”

The Vizit FrameGrowney says digital communication today is as much about frequency as it is about substance. Which meant that the company wanted to make it extremely easy to get new photos into any digital frame. To make that possible—and to sidestep the main problem with memory-card-based frames, which is that most people never get around to putting new photos on the cards—-Isabella built a cellular card into the Vizit. The company isn’t saying yet which cellular operator the device connects to, but Growney says it’s a GSM/GPRS-based network that reaches all major U.S. metropolitan areas. Reading between the lines, that probably means AT&T.

[Update, 11/5/09: Isabella Products confirmed in a press release today that it's working with AT&T to deliver photos to the Vizit frame wirelessly.]

The device connects wirelessly to Isabella’s online content management system many times a day to see whether new pictures are available. That system, at VizitMe.com, is another part of the gadget’s beauty. While the frame itself holds only 150 photos, the website can hold thousands. Adding new photos into the rotation is as easy as 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.

Wade Roush is Xconomy's chief correspondent and editor of Xconomy San Francisco. You can subscribe to his Google Group or e-mail him at wroush@xconomy.com. Follow @wroush

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  • bowerbird

    a $250 “media hub” that cannot access the web?

    oh yeah, that’s a good idea. a really good idea…

    -bowerbird

  • Wade Roush

    Bowerbird, the device does access the Web, in a sense — it gets new photos from the VizitMe Web service, which in turn connects to other photo sharing sites. In any case, I don’t think you’d really want to surf the open Web over a cellular modem, and Isabella’s pricing model wouldn’t cover the expense. I see the Vizit as being similar to other dedicated wireless devices like the Kindle — which is $299, and does have a rudimentary Web browser, but is designed for reading books, just as Vizit is designed for viewing photos.

  • Indy Will

    A 10.2 inch screen is a mighty big screen for sure. But once you account for the size of the actual frame around the larger screen and considering how a consumer “typically” uses a frame, the Vizit frame might be too big for a typical book-shelf, night-stand, end-table or desk. I think this why MOST frames, sold by many different manufacturers,tend to be the smaller 7 or 8 inch screen size.

    Your critique of the image quality is not quite right. A larger frame NEEDS more pixels to create the image quality equal to a smaller frame with less pixels. I would HOPE Vizit understood this! So your point that the image “quality” is better is misleading and really an unfair statement.

    Finally, a touch screen might seem like a cool feature at first, but it is a nightmare to keep clean. How do I know? Well my personal frame is a touch screen and now that I have owned it for awhile I wish that I had a remote to operate it instead.

    Will

  • Nokama

    ““My mother didn’t feel like a grandmother because she couldn’t ever see her grandchildren, living in Chicago,” says Growney. “Her solution was to come and live with us for months at a time. I said, ‘We can solve this problem with technology.’”

    I can only hope this quote was taken out of context, because if that isn’t a sad commentary on our society today, I don’t know what is. Replace a face-to-face interaction with a close family member with yet another screen!?? I can’t believe that this is how somebody thinks.

  • http://www.xconomy.com/author/wroush/ Wade Roush

    Geez, everyones’s so negative today!

    I guess the irony in Growney’s comment didn’t come through. I’ve added a phrase to the story to make it clear that the grandmother quote was tongue-in-cheek. My impression from meeting with Isabella Products is that they care deeply about increasing human communication. The great thing about digital media devices, obviously, is that they make it so much easier to stay in touch with the people you care about, even when you can’t be in the same place with them.

  • TD

    HP’s doing this too! And seemingly a whole lot better: Check out the DreamScreen.

  • Red Velvet

    It already appears that Vizit is way better than the HP ScreamScreen. See today’s review on two other frames that look far inferior to Vizit.
    http://www.nytimes.com/2009/09/24/technology/personaltech/24pogue.html?_r=2&emc=eta1

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