New England’s Vizit Turns the Digital Photo Frame from a Dumb Display into a Sophisticated Media Hub

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e-mailing them to the frame’s private account. (Only users authorized by the frame owner can send photos.) And just as in the social-networking world, Vizit owners can instruct the system to check other photo-sharing sites, like Flickr or Photobucket, for new photos uploaded by authorized friends or family members.

To make it impossible for users to get lost in a sea of controls and drop-down menus, Growney’s team designed a user interface for the touchscreen dominated by big left and right arrows (for moving between photos manually) and a “carousel” menu that makes it easy to flip between controls for favoriting, removing, rotating, and sharing photos.

That last function—sharing—isn’t something I’ve seen in any other digital frame. “Say I love this photo and I want to pay it forward and send it off to my Aunt Jean,” says Growney. “I can e-mail it to any contact in VizitMe address book right from the device.”

Another intriguing and potentially lucrative feature is the ability to order photo-related products—prints, postcards, posters, mugs, and “brag books” consisting of up to 24 hand-picked images—directly from the device’s touchscreen. Growney says Isabella is partnering with Pixxlz, an eco-friendly printing company affiliated with the Boston-based Copy Copy chain, to let frame owners buy such products.

It’s all part of a major reinvention of the digital photo frame—from a dumb display into something closer to a media hub. “To date, most manufacturers have just treated the people who own frames as observers,” says Growney. “Now a person with a device can interact with their photo collection, and not just be at the end of the photo-sharing experience.”

The Pixxlz partnership isn’t Isabella’s only local connection. In fact, the story of Vizit is a distinctly East Coast tale, which is itself rather unusual in the consumer electronics business.

Growney says the device was designed at Isabella starting about 15 months ago. (The company, which is named after Growney’s 4-year-old daughter, shares an office with Rudyard Partners and is one of four startups the firm is incubating.) Orchid Technologies Engineering & Consulting of Maynard, MA, handled the hardware engineering, and MapleLeaf Software in Hudson, NH, created the embedded user-interface software.

Inevitably, the hardware is being assembled in China, but the plant owner—RDI Electronics—is based in Mt. Kisco, NY. Amazon and the Vizit website will be the main places to buy the device, but Isabella chose another local company to handle logistics and customer fulfillment. (Growney couldn’t name it, but said it’s in Westborough, MA.)

“It’s definitely possible to build a consumer device company in New England,” says Growney. “You can find the talent. It may be counterintuitive for anyone doing consumer hardware, but we make a deliberate effort to invest in New England.”

Between now and October 30, when the Vizit goes on sale, the company has to make a few decisions, like exactly how much the gadget will cost. And because the retail price won’t cover the cellular service, they’ll have to settle on the size of the monthly subscription, and whether to offer buyers a bundled version with, for example, a year’s service built into the price. And not least among the company’s anxieties is whether Vizit will be selected for Oprah’s holiday “O List”—it was still in the running as of last week, Growney says. (An endorsement from Oprah before the 2008 holidays catapulted the Amazon Kindle—which also has a built-in cellular modem and was, in some ways, the inspiration for Vizit, Growney says—into the bestseller category.)

But regardless of what Oprah thinks, the Vizit frame could get a lot of people to take a new look at digital photo frames. “Photos are an enormous content sector that is increasing every day,” says Growney. “The real issue has always been how do they get distributed?” For those willing to pay a premium, Isabella Products has come up with one of the best solutions yet.

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Wade Roush is a freelance science and technology journalist and the producer and host of the podcast Soonish. Follow @soonishpodcast

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8 responses to “New England’s Vizit Turns the Digital Photo Frame from a Dumb Display into a Sophisticated Media Hub”

  1. bowerbird says:

    a $250 “media hub” that cannot access the web?

    oh yeah, that’s a good idea. a really good idea…


  2. Wade Roush says:

    Bowerbird, the device does access the Web, in a sense — it gets new photos from the VizitMe Web service, which in turn connects to other photo sharing sites. In any case, I don’t think you’d really want to surf the open Web over a cellular modem, and Isabella’s pricing model wouldn’t cover the expense. I see the Vizit as being similar to other dedicated wireless devices like the Kindle — which is $299, and does have a rudimentary Web browser, but is designed for reading books, just as Vizit is designed for viewing photos.

  3. Indy Will says:

    A 10.2 inch screen is a mighty big screen for sure. But once you account for the size of the actual frame around the larger screen and considering how a consumer “typically” uses a frame, the Vizit frame might be too big for a typical book-shelf, night-stand, end-table or desk. I think this why MOST frames, sold by many different manufacturers,tend to be the smaller 7 or 8 inch screen size.

    Your critique of the image quality is not quite right. A larger frame NEEDS more pixels to create the image quality equal to a smaller frame with less pixels. I would HOPE Vizit understood this! So your point that the image “quality” is better is misleading and really an unfair statement.

    Finally, a touch screen might seem like a cool feature at first, but it is a nightmare to keep clean. How do I know? Well my personal frame is a touch screen and now that I have owned it for awhile I wish that I had a remote to operate it instead.


  4. Nokama says:

    ““My mother didn’t feel like a grandmother because she couldn’t ever see her grandchildren, living in Chicago,” says Growney. “Her solution was to come and live with us for months at a time. I said, ‘We can solve this problem with technology.’”

    I can only hope this quote was taken out of context, because if that isn’t a sad commentary on our society today, I don’t know what is. Replace a face-to-face interaction with a close family member with yet another screen!?? I can’t believe that this is how somebody thinks.

  5. Wade RoushWade Roush says:

    Geez, everyones’s so negative today!

    I guess the irony in Growney’s comment didn’t come through. I’ve added a phrase to the story to make it clear that the grandmother quote was tongue-in-cheek. My impression from meeting with Isabella Products is that they care deeply about increasing human communication. The great thing about digital media devices, obviously, is that they make it so much easier to stay in touch with the people you care about, even when you can’t be in the same place with them.

  6. TD says:

    HP’s doing this too! And seemingly a whole lot better: Check out the DreamScreen.

  7. Red Velvet says:

    It already appears that Vizit is way better than the HP ScreamScreen. See today’s review on two other frames that look far inferior to Vizit.