Jake Levine, an entrepreneur in New York, likes the kind of art that tends to be popular on the Internet — cleverly Photoshopped pictures, and animated images like GIFs — and wanted a way to get it off his computer and onto a wall, alongside more traditional works like photographs and paintings. But how do you hang pixels on a wall?
He considered his options. Yes, digital picture frames were inexpensive and widely available, but they tended to be small and unsophisticated. And it seemed wasteful to hang a tablet or an expensive monitor on a wall — where it would be tempting to use the device for web browsing or watching movies instead of enjoying a piece of art.
Eventually, he put together a digital canvas by using an inexpensive monitor and a computer called aRaspberry Pi. The display was controlled by a simple web app that allowed him to select images online and to change them instantly, with a click.
It was promising enough that Mr. Levine decided to quit his job as the general manager of Digg, a news site, and to focus on building these screens full time.
Mr. Levine named his companyElectric Objects and raised $1.7 million through a seed round of venture financing in April to rent an office and hire employees. To generate feedback, he also used the money to build and send out a hundred prototypes to other entrepreneurs and artists. He plans to sell a polished version of his prototype for $299 later this year.
The first time I heard about the company, I wasn’t sure that the concept had broader market appeal, largely because I’m not convinced that people would want more screen devices in their homes. As someone who owns a tablet, a smartphone and a laptop, I definitely didn’t. I have even resisted buying a television. But after seeing a prototype, I was impressed by the simplicity of the machine. And if people are willing to buy stand-alone gadgets to play music, monitor their health and help manage their homes, why not purchase one for culture and art?
Mr. Levine isn’t the only entrepreneur who sees a market here. Several competitors, including Instacubeand FRM, are working on similar approaches to digital installations for the home.
Yugo Nakamura, co-founder and creative director of FRM, based in Tokyo, said he saw his digital frame as a service for creators and fans of visual culture.
“If we look to the future, screens will be seen as a dominant medium like the canvas was for centuries,” he said in an email. “It’s what we create with these tools that will be remembered most.”
He said people would be drawn to the art that the screen fosters, and not only to the device itself. The hardware is secondary to the art.
“I’m not sure if our experiment will ‘rule the future’ so to speak, but the timing seems right,” he said.
Both Mr. Levine and Mr. Nakamura plan to cultivate networks of artists who create works exclusively for the screens, which people could buy through an online store. The larger goal is not simply to reproduce famous photos and paintings, but to support a growing community of artists who create computer animations and images.
“The reason people aren’t paying for digital art is because the experience doesn’t feel viable,” Mr. Levine said. “It mostly feels like taking the offline art world and porting it online.”
Zoë Salditch, a curator who has experience working with experimental and new-media artists, is developing the network of artists at Electric Objects. She said that using screens to display interactive or digital art was quite common in the art world, but not yet among consumers.
“You see this kind of device in a hacked version in galleries all the time,” she said. But it can be difficult and expensive for art aficionados who don’t have a hardware and software background to recreate it.
“This device makes it an all-in-one,” and available at a much lower price, she said.
Ms. Salditch is working on building an “artists in residence” program through the company that supplies a stipend and a prototype of the screen to a number of digital artists, to encourage them to create pieces designed specifically for the device.
Robin Sloan, author of a futuristic novel called “Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore,” has been playing around with an Electric Objects prototype. He says that these kinds of devices play to our current cultural fascination with image creation and sharing on sites like Facebook, Pinterest, Instagram and Tumblr, but in a much more meaningful way
“The whole social Internet is built on images,” he said. “And there’s no denying that all of these systems seem to want us to consume more images, faster, all the time. Which ends up being kind of gross, I think.”
The Electric Objects device has some social features, like allowing people to see what their friends have displayed in their homes and to choose to display the same images. But it won’t allow checking email, for example.
For Mr. Sloan, who has also worked at media companies like Twitter and Current TV, the screen’s minimalist nature is what makes it so appealing: It allows only one image to be shown at a time.
“It actually insists upon a slower, more thoughtful pace” of cultural consumption, he said.
That’s exactly the kind of retro-futuristic experience that Mr. Levine hopes people will be willing to pay for.