Jake Levine thinks the Internet is stuck inside our computers. We turn on our screens, check email, write a Word document, head over to Facebook, maybe watch some Netflix, then turn them off.
"That tends to build some anxiety," Levine, the former general manager at Digg, explained to Fast Company. "You have software built on those devices that is designed to demand your attention, to focus you. What we end up feeling at the end of all of that is anxious."
For Levine, it's not information overload that has led to our ambivalent relationship with technology, but the way we interact with that information through our devices, which are designed primarily for productivity. The bright screen, the notifications, the recommended reading pop-ups: all of these things pull us back into our computers. That's useful in a lot of ways and contexts, but it can also be stressful. (See: the lab rat metaphor.)
The solution to Internet anxiety, then, isn't to decrease the amount of stuff we consume, argues Levine, but to create devices that improve our experience. His working mantra is: "There is more information available at our fingertips during a walk in the woods than in any computer system, yet people find a walk among trees relaxing and computers frustrating," a quote from Mike Wiser's 1991 paper The Computer for the 21st Century. In other words: it's the medium, not the message.
That's where Electric Objects, Levine's new venture, comes in. He wants to take some of the more serene parts of the Internet out of that stress-inducing device sitting on your desk, and put them on your wall through a different kind of device.
"I'm building an Internet-connected screen that will bring the Internet to your wall, a screen that is worthy of that beautiful mess of human expression that pervades our connected lives," Levine explained in a Medium post. (The company Wednesday announced a $1.7 million round of funding led by First Round and RRE.)
It sounds a lot like a smart TV. But, the similarities between the two end at the screen. Both the hardware and software of Levine's invention are designed for "passive" or "ambient" use, more like a picture frame and less like a tablet. Alex Rainert, the head of design at Project Florida who is testing the device, said it doesn't feel like a gadget at all. "There is something nice about how subtle the technology is," he told Fast Company.
The product is still in the prototype phase. But the current unpriced model hacked together by Levine is bigger than an iPad and, at 23 inches, smaller than most TVs. A final, more polished version will include a screen designed to be on at all times, with sensors that detect if anyone is nearby, activating the screen. It will also have a tilt sensor to reorient itself in either landscape or portrait modes, and an ambient light sensor to keep the brightness low and subtle. "I have a prototype here at my parents' house, and they'll have friends come over and they won't know it's a screen," Levine explained.
The software is a browser with no user interface—search bar, tabs, etc.—around it. It can technically show any URL, but Levine wants to constrain its use: No productivity- or entertainment-related content. Eventually, he will open up the API to developers, but before then he wants to teach people how to use the technology his way. The first app is a digital art archive, which allows users to choose from a variety of beautiful found items on the Internet.
Right now, about 60 designers, artists, and other people Levine thought might be interesting members of his frontier community are testing the device. "The pitch for this community is: 'Hey guys, we know you love the Internet. Wouldn't it be great if you could enjoy the Internet in a lasting, contemplative, ambient way?'" Levine explained.
To populate the screen with images, users head over to the Electric Objects site, where they can create an account, log in, and browse a gallery of digital art from the depths of the Internet curated by the members of the community, as well as Electric Object's director of artist relations, Zoe Salditch. Once they've found something they would like to display on their wall, they just click a button and send it on over to the device. They can keep it up as long as they like.
At first people asked Levine where the slide show button was, or how to get the device to cycle through images. Neither of those features exist for a reason; Levine wants the art to settle into its environment.
Over the time, Levine has found, his test group has started living with the images longer. (You can see how long someone has kept a picture up under a "displayed" tab on the site.) Rainert changes his every morning.
"Nick, one of my advisors, says that the relationship you have with the object changes over time—the longer you leave it up there, it starts to feel a part of your room and a part of your life in a different way," explained Levine.
Another tester, Alexis Madrigal, says the Internet achieves "objecthood" through the screen. "Most fundamentally, and this sounds absurd to say it out loud, but it makes the pictures of the Internet feel like concrete, tangible things in a way that nothing else I've discovered does," the Atlantic's technology editor told Fast Company.
At this point, the device is an interesting intellectual experiment. Madrigal said he couldn't tell me the thing's purpose, but thought it was "cool." That might not be enough to sell something that, at face value, sounds like an Internet-connected picture frame. (Levine assures his tablet will surpass any "smart" frames with both its hardware and software.)
Rainert thinks Electric Objects will have the best chance of attracting buyers if it can place itself outside of the gadget category, and into the art space. "It shouldn't feel like I bought a digital picture frame," said Rainert. Sure, an iPad Mini costs $400 and can approximate what Electric Objects is trying to do. But framing one piece of art can cost $300 for the frame alone. Electric Objects can display infinite pieces of art, and theoretically, look as striking as a framed portrait.