Much as the watch was the first digital display to grace most people’s wrists, the alarm clock was the first digital display to appear in many households. But tech companies have long been eager to establish a “fourth screen” in the home, beyond the TV, PC, and phone. Starting in the late ’90s, such efforts included web surfing devices like the MSN Companion and Virgin Webplayer, the channel-centric Chumby, and products focused on streaming media such as Sony’s Dash and HP’s Dreamscreen.
But the product category that did best was far simpler: digital picture frames. Ceiva—which is still around—established the field in 1999 with the launch of its first frame, which used a dial-up modem to retrieve photos from its subscription service. Kodak was another early entrant, partnering with a startup called Storybox that didn’t fare as well. The photography giant would return with a better-received connected frame called Pulse that unfortunately arrived just as the company was exiting the consumer market.
Nevertheless, the category exploded in the late 2000s. Pandigital, a company dedicated to smart frames, shipped 15 million units from 2005 to 2011, according to its former CEO Dean Finnegan. While Pandigital pioneered frames with Wi-Fi, touch screens, Android, and even a cellular connection, many of the products that flew off the shelves during the hot holiday season of 2007 were sub-$100 bargain models that relied on memory cards transferred from a camera. The experience wasn’t great, and the memory-card dynamic was disrupted by smartphones on the capture side and tablets on the display side.
Still, Finnegan attributes the category’s 2008 implosion more to inventory shortages and a market collapse than product deficiencies. The release of the iPad in 2010 seemed like the final stake in the heart of the digital frame. Apple even included a photo-frame mode, but few iPads are used in the home as stationary digital frames.
Recently, companies small and large have been taking another run at establishing connected displays around the home. Most of these companies have photos at the heart of their offerings, while also providing regular updates that add functionality. One of the most longstanding vendors has been Nixplay, a classic lone-entrepreneur bedroom startup story out of the U.K. that capitalized on a No. 1 sales position on Amazon to grow to millions of customers. Today, Nixplay offers a wide range of digital frames in different sizes. And despite offering modest pricing, the company runs its own cloud service and supports well-designed mobile apps so that consumers can seamlessly add photos to their frames or those of friends or family members.
Nixplay’s success has spurred a host of other companies into the market, some of which offer devices optimized, like a tablet, for passing around. One launching this month is Joy, a $500 glossy, 13-inch affair that creatively arranges multiple photos into layouts and allows adding voice notes to pictures. It joins another, sub-$150 10-inch frame from bootstrapped startup PhotoSpring that also also detaches from a wireless charging base. Then there’s Aura, which can use gestures to navigate, focuses on its own cloud service in the name of enhanced privacy, and has partnered with designer Jonathan Adler for a refined aesthetic.
From a design perspective, the highest-concept entrant is Loop. In contrast to the thin, ultramodern look of the Nixplay Iris frame, the Loop device is wedge-shaped. Its retro TV styling even uses side-mounted analog dials to navigate via channels. A leather-like strap helps you tote the Loop around the home, and there are some nods to modern functionality, including video chats.
Speaking of Alexa, Amazon has begun its move into small screens around the home. Amazon’s Echo Show, which I’ve described as a desktop PC of the future, has a screen with dimensions large enough to work as a digital frame. But while the Show can show photos, its screen has been focused on being a supplement to the the Echo line’s audio-first focus, anchoring Alexa’s disembodied voice by displaying weather conditions, for example.
As a platform that breaks away from Alexa’s Echo origins, the Show can also act as a streaming device with its relatively powerful front-facing speakers or as a video phone. However, as the product has no battery, it must stay plugged in for all tasks. The Echo Show has drawn criticism from another company in the home screen space–a video intercom called Nucleus in which Amazon invested–that has accused Amazon of copying its device after it offered to support Alexa.
At $230, the Echo Show costs significantly less than many frames such as Aura ($300) and Joy ($500, but with a much larger display), Still, it’s an expensive device within the Echo lineup. Now, the company is looking to downsize it with the $130 Echo Spot, a smaller and inexpensive version with a round screen, a crystal rose-bowl shape, and the footprint of an alarm clock.
Indeed, as the Show impinged on the Nucleus’s turf, the Echo Spot has some similarities to Bonjour, another small, Alexa-enabled connected alarm clock screen that originated as a Kickstarter campaign and has been stuck in that abyss between collecting crowdfunded funds and delivering its product. In the company’s most recent update to backers at the end of September, it noted, “We’ve always been convinced that having a screen is a must for a vocal assistant. So, it’s without any surprise that we welcome the new Amazon Echo Spot.”
One of the category’s pioneers is thinking about its future. Pandigital’s Finnegan has moved on to become the CEO of Switchmate, a company that tackles another point of interaction in homes–the light switch. But he still remains a champion of small screens in the home. “What’s happening now is that they’re connected devices,” he says. “The small screens will now become convergence devices. They’re also command-and-control centers for the home.” With the aid of new wireless power technology, Finnegan says his company is looking at deploying a device with a display that can hang on a wall and never need to be charged. That would take us one step closer to replicating the decidedly analog photos and paintings that were some of the original home displays.