Digital photo frames were hailed as a leap forward for presenting your images, a technology to go hand in hand with digital cameras. So, what happened?
The future is bright. It's Back to the Future 2 and Marty McFly — the future Marty McFly — walks into his lounge where large display screens show an idyllic rural scene. Of course, the reality of Lyon Estates in 2015 was a little different, but the direction of travel of digital displays was clear. Photos and information were the items of choice, so it's a short step to a curated slideshow of your own images (although curiously, we never see Marty shoot stills, only video).
Why Are Digital Displays Unpopular?
Of course, large forty-inch digital displays are now mainstream, and you'll find them in many homes. But the curation of virtual photo albums for display in the living room? That appears to be sadly absent. Why is this?
Firstly, the hardware wasn't up to scratch, with the displays not particularly good. Actually, to be brutally honest, they were rubbish! I remember my first photo frame with a screen the size of an address label. That might have been quite a good idea for an iPod where you wanted the general gist of an album cover, but for viewing a person, they were poor, and for a group of people… well, just try recognizing an individual face from fifty-odd pixels. Yes, the resolution was also low at only 1 MP, and the color reproduction only really a ballpark figure.
I followed that viewer up with a seven-inch Kodak frame and while it was bigger, it made you realize that digital albums were more than just pixels. They involve a synergistic dance between hardware and software so that it does what it's meant to do (display photos) without getting in the way. Unfortunately, both the software (poorly designed and awkward to use) and hardware (cheap, plasticky, and, crucially, not networked) got in the way.
Secondly, you can't watch TV and view images at the same time. That seems pretty obvious, but if your main viewing device is your TV, then as soon as your daughter comes in to watch an episode of "The Next Step," or indeed "Game of Thrones," no more on-screen photos.
Perhaps this highlights the main problem — no one currently buys a forty-inch screen just to look at photos. Even a seven-inch frame can seem a little pricey, particularly when producing a ten-inch print is less than a cup of coffee, and it never turns off and doesn't cost anything to run!
Thirdly, people don't actually want to view images! Think back to those stereotypical dinner parties in the 70s and 80s when your family and friends were invited around to watch a slideshow of your latest holiday. When I say slideshow, not 85 slides in Powerpoint replete with every possible transition and sound effect, but one shot on Ektachrome and projected on to your living room wall. Uncle Jeffrey fell asleep back then, and it's not too different in today's Powerpoint version. It's plain and simple: nobody wants to sit and look at a stream of images they have little vested interest in.
So, how do people really want to consume images (because, deep down, they actually want to)? Let's look at those three problems I noted above. Firstly, size. You need a display that is at least 4"x6" and preferably bigger, in the same way you would mount a photo in a frame. Secondly, don't use your TV as a display. While it might be a multi-function device, it can't do two things at once, so don't try to shoehorn a photo frame into something that is designed for a different purpose. Finally, think of viewing the imagery as not too dissimilar to listening to music. You don't buy Coldplay's latest album and then invite friends around to sit in your living room and listen to it. So, don't do the same with photos! Rather, give yourself a gallery space where you can display your images for careful consumption and consideration. That might well be in your living room, but presenting them as a gallery would let people view them in their own time. It's more like a live performance where the individual can indulge themselves as much as they like.
What that means is a dedicated display in a dedicated space, and unsurprisingly, a number of manufacturers have developed products targeting this market. For example, there is Meural's Canvas II, which is a dedicated image viewer with a high-quality anti-glare screen, a subscription to artwork, and motion detection to allow interaction. If you want a digital frame that is also a TV, then there I Samsung's eye-wateringly expensive The Frame.
Or Just Maybe?
However, there is another way to consume images at home, which is similar to listening to the radio (or Spotify). You may actually be doing something else and have music, or imagery, on in the background. This more informal viewing is about mutual interest and serendipity, where you can stumble across something you find interesting. As a result, places where you listen to the radio may well also be good places to view photos.
One location in my house where people are always buzzing around in the kitchen. I, therefore, have a digital photo frame that sits on the worktop, constantly displaying images. These aren't curated, competition-winning photos, but a lifetime of family living. The photo frame randomly cycles through the images, and what I love is that it starts conversations and fires memories. Family and friends ask where who and what questions I may or may not be able to answer. It's everything and more that I hoped a photo frame would offer.
So, what photo frame do I use? Actually, it's not a bespoke photo frame at all, but an old tablet. There were three considerations when it came to devising a solution: screen, presentation, and software. The screen ideally needs to be a reasonable quality unit that's bright, with good color accuracy and gamut. Alternatively, any screen that you can re-use makes for an economical option, and there's nothing better than an old tablet. Mine is an aging Google Nexus 7 (2012), which is now painfully slow at running most apps. However, it is a solid piece of hardware that, in its day, had a great screen.
Secondly, how will the tablet actually be mounted? The simplest solution is to use a stand, and while many tablet cases come with a pop-out foot, I opted to go for something a little more substantial in the form of this Amazon Basics model. For a near-constantly running device, being battery-powered isn't an option. To keep cabling neat, I used right-angled micro USB connectors and a velcro cable tie to secure the loose wire. Obviously, you also need a charging socket as well.
The final part of the setup is software. I tried a few different products, but settled on Fotoo (Android only), which is highly customizable, has active development, and the developer is responsive to support. I exported around 8,000 photos from my family Lightroom catalog, resizing the images to 1,280×800 (the screen resolution) before uploading to a photo folder on Dropbox (Fotoo also supports Google Photos, Google Drive, Microsoft OneDrive, and Samba shares). I've linked Fotoo to my Dropbox account, and it syncs in the background if I choose to upload new photos. In addition, the app is set to star tup 7-9 am and 6-11 pm every day. Outside of those times, the app shuts down, and then the device Sleep setting kicks in, shutting down the screen.
Fotoo has a number of settings for overlay information and transitions. I've kept mine simple, having the date and time permanently displayed so the tablet can act as a clock. In addition, it overlays the image capture date, which provides context (particularly when you can't remember when a photo was taken), but can often trigger linked memories.
For me, the ad hoc display of photos in this manner has allowed the digital photo frame to come of age. We have a time and place where people can view photos, as well as a social context where they want to. What the tablet is providing is a convergent device that can handle a number of tasks in this manner. We've seen Amazon's Echo take up a similar role for audio, so it's fascinating to see the JBL Link View being reviewed so positively. Manufacturers have realized that the key to a device that can successfully handle convergent information is ubiquity. Not something you carry everywhere, but something that is everywhere. Maybe, just maybe, the digital photo frame will have a second breath of life.
Body image courtesy of Luis Villasmil via Unsplash, used under Creative Commons.