Your mother probably taught you to turn off the TV when you weren’t watching it. That made sense, back in the day: television sets used to consume a lot of juice. Today, they don’t. If you bought the largest, most electricity-guzzling flat-screen TV you could find and left it on all the time, you’d still pay only about $400 per year in electric bills. For the most energy-efficient TVs, you’d spend about $45.
But in the past, there hasn’t been a reason you’d actually want to leave your TV on 24/7. The average American watches five hours of TV per day; that leaves 19 hours when the idiot box could be used for something else. Now there’s finally a something else: turning your TV into an always-on digital art gallery.
After all, your set probably has decent resolution (1920×1080 pixels is standard these days), and it’s probably the largest display you own—it may even be larger than any of the art on your walls. That makes it the perfect medium for showing a rotating selection of paintings and photographs—and everybody likes pretty pictures.
The idea of the TV as art canvas isn’t new. In fact, startups have pitched it several times before, and it has always turned out to be a commercial flop. I wrote about one of these doomed efforts back in 2008. It’s possible that average consumers don’t mind having big, black, unused screens taking up a good chunk of the visual real estate in their homes, or that they can’t be bothered to put them to other uses.
But it’s also possible that the previous attempts at putting art on TVs failed due to inadequate technology, badly designed user interfaces, flawed business models, or all of the above. That’s what Sheldon Laube believes. He’s the CEO of Artkick, a Los Altos Hills, CA-based startup that’s been described by the New York Times as “the Spotify of art.” The company, which came out of stealth mode in January, has collected tens of thousands of images, from museum classics to the work of emerging artists. It delivers them to high-definition screens via the Internet, allowing users to control the whole process from a free app for iOS and Android tablets and smartphones.
One frustration with GalleryPlayer, the last product that tried something like this, was that the software actually ran on a PC, which you had to connect to your TV via video cables—an idea that consumers have always resisted, as Microsoft found with its failed Windows Media Center technology. Today, it has become much easier to manage digital images in the cloud and send them straight to a TV over the Internet, by way of a Wi-Fi-connected device like a Roku box or Google’s Chromecast adapter.
The Artkick app, which works with such devices, acts like a remote control, cutting the computer out of the loop while also allowing you to bypass the painfully awkward software interfaces on most TVs. In other words, it piggybacks, via the Internet, on the devices you’ve already got hooked up to your TV, rather than requiring you to add another one.
“The unique insight was, you should control this using a second screen, instead of trying to control it using a TV” or a PC, says Laube, who was formerly chief innovation officer at the giant accounting and consulting firm PriceWaterhouseCoopers. “Everybody has a phone or a tablet, so the UI should be on the tablet or the phone and the TV should be the display. That would dramatically simplify lots of stuff.”
Equally important, Laube decided Artkick shouldn’t charge by the image. For now, the app is free, while the startup focuses on recruiting users. But even after the company starts collecting money, it will use a freemium, subscription model, like Spotify or Pandora; the free version will have ads, and for a fee ranging from $5 to $9 per month, users will have unlimited, ad-free access to Artkick’s image library.
“GalleryPlayer had two fatal flaws, the first of which was that you needed a PC connected to your TV. But then, their business model was truly crazy,” Laube says. “They wanted you to own the art. They said, ‘You can have as many pictures as you want to buy’”—which meant the startup had to acquire the rights to the images first, which naturally used up a lot of its capital.
To avoid this trap, Artkick is only going after images that are in the public domain, or art from new painters or photographers, who are willing to license their work cheaply in exchange for exposure. (That distinguishes it from London-based competitor Sedition, which charges $8 to $80 per image for art from name-brand creators like Damien Hirst and Shepard Fairey.) The app offers more images than you could ever really look at, including thousands of paintings by artists from Cezanne to Kandinsky, astronomy photos from the Hubble Space Telescope, and even a dozen photographs by Ansel Adams (they’re in the public domain because he took them while employed by the Department of the Interior). You can explore existing “viewlists”—just the 117 pictures from the Detroit Institute of Arts, for example—or you can make your own lists. You can also import your own images from Facebook, Flickr, Instagram, Picasa, or Smugmug.
I’ve been testing Artkick this week, and I’ve been able to get it working on my TV two different ways, though neither one is quite as seamless as it needs to be to make Artkick grandmother-ready. In both cases, I started by downloading the Artkick iOS app to my iPad. Method 1 was to fire up my Chromecast, use Google’s Chromecast app to make sure my iPad could find the device on my local Wi-Fi network, and then use the Artkick app to choose images to show on the screen. When you connect this way, you have the option of switching to a full-screen view (as opposed to a letterboxed version showing the entire artwork), and you can also put Artkick into slideshow mode, with new images showing up as often as every minute or as infrequently as every 24 hours.
Method 2 was to switch the input on my TV over to my Apple TV box, and then use AirPlay mirroring to transfer the images on the iPad to the big screen. This method is a little more awkward, and it doesn’t allow full-screen view or slideshows; in this scenario you have to change the image manually by swiping left or right on the tablet screen.
Laube says the startup is working with manufacturers to make sure that Artkick is included as one of the apps that come pre-loaded on many new models of smart TVs. That way you could still use a phone or tablet as the second screen, but you wouldn’t need to connect via gadgets like Roku, Chromecast, or Apple TV, which are still relatively rare. (Only one in seven households owns such a streaming media device, according to research firm Parks Associates.) A few manufacturers who buy into the second-screen idea have said that they’ll include an Artkick button in the “virtual remote” apps they’re developing for smartphones and tablets.
If Artkick shows up on enough of those platforms, the bootstrapped, 10-employee startup might just be able to meet Laube’s goal of growing to 100,000 users before the end of 2014. There are still “lots of friction points” in the whole concept, starting with people’s aversion to leaving their TVs on all the time, Laube acknowledges. “If that wasn’t true, it wouldn’t be a startup,” he says. But once the company has enough users, Laube says, it will be in position to implement revenue-generating features, such as showing ads between paintings in the free version of the app, and offering an ad-free subscription version with premium content and features.
It should probably be said that the current Artkick app itself, which has only been out since January, lacks polish. It’s a bit buggy, and neither the design nor the navigation system are yet up the standards of art apps published by major museums like the Louvre or the Amsterdam Rijksmusuem, or even commercial reference apps like ArtAuthority. And if you’re the sort of person who knows the difference between impasto, chiaroscuro, and sfumato, you’ll probably find Artkick unsatisfying. You can’t zoom in on the images, for one thing.
“If you want to study art, there is nothing better than the Google Art Project; they have super-high-resolution images,” Laube says. “This is not about that.”
What it is about is getting art onto your TV screen, and that’s something worthwhile. After all, there’s no reason art and photography shouldn’t follow TV shows, movies, books, and music into the era of digital, on-demand delivery. And focusing on off-copyright images, as Artkick has, seems like the right way to go: it leaves out most 20th-century artists, but there’s obviously plenty of great art in the public domain, which means Artkick’s costs are all about infrastructure, not content.
“In the early days of music, you went to a performance and you listened to what they were willing to perform,” Laube says. “That changed with records and radio, but even with records you’d only have 100, 150, maybe 300 albums. That’s been revolutionized again with digital music, and now you can listen to whatever music you want, whenever you want, and match music to your mood. That is what we want to do with art. We want to get the beauty out of the museum, so you don’t have to go there to surround yourself with it.”
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