Harvard Startup Connects Picture Frames with Wi-Fi, Touchscreens

Let’s be honest—digital picture frames are pretty lame gifts, especially for mom and dad, let alone grandpa. But that could change if a Boston startup named Glimpse has its way.

Glimpse makes Skylight, a new digital picture frame that takes advantage of touchscreens and Wi-Fi to make a frame its creators say is easy to set up, use, and update with fresh photos. The product has a 7-inch LCD screen with 1024 x 600 resolution and can display the most common file types.

People have been trying to make picture frames high-tech for years, and there is no shortage of options online or at Walmart and Best Buy. But those products typically rely on memory cards or USB memory sticks, and it’s clunky to select and store pictures. It also takes a little tech know-how to update with new pictures—that is, if anyone in the family really cares enough to update them.

Michael Segal, one of the Harvard students who founded Glimpse, believes his startup has found a simple solution: connect the frame to the Internet and let Wi-Fi and e-mail do the work. The team met while they were graduate students at Harvard, and they work out of the Harvard Innovation Lab in Boston.

With its Wi-Fi connection, Skylight is simple to update, Segal said. People just e-mail their pictures to an address specific to each machine, and Skylight’s software resizes the photo to make it ready for display. A picture from halfway across the globe could be on grandpa’s screen in seconds.

“Family members can send photos to Skylight instantly from anywhere in the world, and grandma doesn’t lift a finger to get them. No memory stick can do that,” Segal said.

Ease of use is important, and the Skylight also must be easy to set up using its touchscreen capabilities. It should only take a couple of minutes to connect the frame to a home Wi-Fi network, Segal said.

“Most families want a device that works like this, but surprisingly digital photo frames historically have been far more difficult to use for sender and recipient,” Segal said. “We’ve built something for families that we think ‘just works’ right out of the box.”

The Skylight made its debut on Kickstarter a few weeks ago, and as of Wednesday afternoon had raised $24,600 of the $30,000 it is seeking. The campaign has 13 days to go, and it got a boost when the crowdfunding site made it the featured technology product on Wednesday.

A digital picture frame is a high-tech twist on a low-tech but near-ubiquitous product—making it perhaps the proverbial low-hanging fruit of connected devices. If the product succeeds, it could give Segal and company an entry point into connected homes and smart devices as well as the know-how to build a consumer product.

“We absolutely believe in a future in which every home has a connected, touch-screen display with which you can interact in a variety of ways,” Segal wrote. “Family photo sharing was the logical place to start, since a lot of the things hanging on people’s walls today are already family photos. We’re squarely focused on family photo sharing for now, but will definitely consider expanding into other use cases as we grow.”

Glimpse plans to deliver the frames to its Kickstarter backers by August. Segal said the plan after that is to be ready for the 2015 holiday season. A full commercial launch that gets Skylights on store shelves could be coming next year if all goes well, he said.

Glimpse isn’t the only company to think of adding Wi-Fi to digital frames, of course. High-end versions that include several gigabytes of cloud storage, smartphone apps that create customized slideshows, and connections to social media and photo sharing accounts are available on Amazon. Frames with large high-definition screens and all the bells and whistles can cost more than $300, although most have steep discounts.

Very few, though, seem to use touchscreen technology, which adds a couple hundred bucks to the price tag. Skylight will cost $120 when it hits the market.

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