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Digital photo frames to do a Johnny Farnham?

While the digital photo frame market in Australia is pretty comatose, new approaches could revive interest in what US analyst Hans Hartman calls ‘Digital Photo Frames Take 3’. He looks at four ‘third generation’ digital frames:

Digital frames have been around for a while. We got tired of the first generation in the early 1990s, and the second generation of internet-connected frames in in the early 2000s wasn’t compelling enough either for most of us to keep using them. Why have yet another device to clutter our shelves or counters if we could already easily view our photos on our phone, computer, iPad – or connect any of those to our TV to view them on a large screen?

But more recently a third generation of digital frames have come to market that offer a variety of innovations that target specific rather than general consumer use cases. While there is no guarantee this new generation will succeed this time, their innovative approaches show more promise than the devices we’ve seen in the past.

Why might this third generation have a chance to succeed? Before we go into the specific innovations being pursued, I’d like to point out that there are also more general reasons why digital frames might have a chance to succeed this time around:
– First, the web-based albums or galleries provided by social media and photo cloud storage vendors, long thought of as safe and private solutions for aggregating one’s photos and accessing them from any web-connected device, have lost considerable appeal to those consumers who are concerned about security and privacy. Much-publicised data leaks and a growing awareness of the possible privacy implications of face and image recognition technologies when applied to cloud-stored photos, haven’t helped either. Many consumers are looking for more private photo sharing alternatives;
– At the same time, consumers are starting to re-appreciate the benefits of digital devices, such as Alexa and Google Home, placed inside one’s home that make it just a tad easier to do more or less the same tasks that their smartphones can already do. Having a convenient dedicated anytime-photo viewing device in one’s home has become more imaginable than it was before the Alexa and Google Home era.

While important, neither reason, in my mind, is sufficiently compelling to trigger a comeback of digital photo frames. But there is more. Unlike previous generations, today’s photo frames cater to a variety of very specific use cases and user types. Call it the long tail of photo frame benefits.

Here are four examples:

The Loop is retro-looking with a radio-like interface. Channels for remote content stream
video calls, leveraging the device’s microphone and camera.

Loop is a family visual communication device that rides the waves of today’s fascination with anything retro (think vinyl records or Polaroid/Instax print cameras). The device resembles a radio by featuring two knobs as the main interface. It is promoted through multiple unit pack pricing (one unit is US$249, three are US$199 per frame), so that consumers would not only buy a unit for themselves, but also give one to other family members (such as parents or grandparents). This way, Loop owners can remotely share their photos or videos with each other or communicate through Skype-like video calls.

Collaborating Loop owners can create their own group channels, which are akin to shared albums. These channels may also include content sources besides private photos and videos, such as YouTube Channels or other streaming content. Users can set up and populate these channels through Loop’s iPhone app.

What Joy: Tablet doubles as a photo frame Viewing slideshows and manual browsing via the Joy app can be via Joy or other devices’ touch interface

While Loop has minimized its interface to two knobs, Joy’s digital frame offers a touch interface and is in essence a large tablet with a stand (which doubles as a wireless charger).

Joy’s focus is to empower its users to view curated photo collections, whether the user owns a Joy device or not (the Joy albums could also be forwarded by email for viewing on a smartphone or computer).

Joy device owners can view slideshows on a photo frame placed on a shelf or counter, or pick it up and use it as a tablet while comfortably seated next to their loved ones on the couch. The latter viewing experience is more like browsing a printed photobook (the Joy tablet actually has a center ridge on the back, akin to a book spine).

But why not simply use your iPad or Android tablet to view your photos this way? Founder Alan Chan stresses that a single-purpose viewing device doesn’t trigger the usual email or notification distractions we might witness when viewing photos on our phone or tablet. In addition, he says that Joy’s 13.3-inch full HD display offers a much more immersive experience than on phones or most tablets. Finally, the Joy frame doesn’t contain one’s private info, so that users feel more comfortable passing their device on to others to view their albums.

The Joy website claims the first shipment of Joy frames have sold out – quite an achievement at $500 a pop!

Skylight Frame (US$159)is a touch-screen photo frame like Joy and is in some ways also reminiscent of Loop’s retro approach by offering a minimalistic interface for remotely adding photos to the device simply through email. Think of it as children or grandchildren adding photos, videos, or email messages to Grandma’s Skylight Frame. Grandma can then swipe, delete, pause, and click on the thank you button. That’s all there is to it.

Skylight Frame is all about simplicity. Remote upload through email.

Skylight Frames could also be used in other settings. For example, wedding guests might give the bride and groom a Skylight Frame as a present and ask the wedding guests to email to the device any photos they took during the wedding, thus automatically creating a crowd-sourced photo album on the couple’s Skylight Frame without the ad hoc collaborators needing to install an app or learn how to upload the photos.

While Loop, Joy and Skylight are relatively early stage startups, Nixplay has been selling digital frames for 10 years. The company has sold 1.5M devices to date and still sells a range of non-WiFi 1.0 frames in addition to its lineup of internet-connected units. Users can remotely load photos and videos onto the frames through a smartphone app or, like Skylight Frame, by emailing them to the device.

The Nixplay Seedwave provides connection with Google Photos and other cloud services, plus Alexa integration to enable voice commands.
A video-focused frame with high quality sound.

Nixplay’s smartphone app engages with the Nixplay Cloud, Nixplay’s photo/video storage environment that can be dynamically linked to one’s photo collections on Google Photos, Dropbox and various social media networks.

Users can control the display through their smartphone app, a remote control and, recently added, an Alexa smart speaker by using voice commands.

Nixplay’s latest frame, the Nixplay Seedwave, ((US$249) announced this month, specifically also caters to video playback by providing robust audio through two 5-watt speakers with dedicated bass and audio amplifier. The Bluetooth-enabled speakers can also be used for any audio playback from one’s phone or other devices.

Will the third generation of digital frames have a chance this time around? Frankly, I don’t know, as the devil is very much in the details. As mentioned earlier, if these details are indeed in place and successfully cater to very specific use cases and user types, digital frames 3.0 do have a chance to succeed. Consumers have come to appreciate the convenience of always-on devices in their homes that make their lives easier and more enjoyable. They are also increasingly wary of cloud storage or social media vendors being the guardian of their precious photos and videos. Still, many alternative viewing devices exist, and the proliferation of screen-enabled smart home devices is just around the corner (even though some are already dead on arrival). We’ll keep you posted!
Hans Hartman is chair of Visual 1st (formerly Mobile Photo Connect), a global conference focused on promoting innovation and partnerships in the photo and video ecosystem, and president of Suite 48 Analytics, a market research firm focused on the consumer photo and video market.

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