Crossing the digital/physical divide

In this post, I explore the values of digital and physical media and examine devices that help bridge the two.

As information becomes increasingly digitized, I find myself within an interesting dynamic. On the one hand, we have liberated information by freeing it from its physical forms. Text, pictures, music and videos can now move easily from one place to another through digital networks. Well documented are the new possibilities that this creates, such as publishing, collaboration, and research. However, this shift in the dominant media for information has caused us to lose some things along the way — immediacy of access and certain physical sensations.

The computer has become the dominant context to view some forms of information, especially text, photos, illustrations, music, speeches, and videos. Physical interactions remain dominant for more complex information forms, such as conversations, debates, paintings, sculpture, theater, teaching, and sport. Very slowly, digital media has made inroads into more complex media, but it still has a long way to go!

Let’s take digital photography as an example. Photographers have largely let go of developer and enlargers in order to gain the ability to shoot an unlimited number of images, easily modify the results in a nondestructive fashion, and share them instantly with people around the world. Recent technological advances, especially the development of digital SLRs, which combine the power of professional lenses with digital image capture, have made this possible. But what have we lost? For the average user, we do not as often print our photos or assemble comprehensive, paper photo albums. Most people I know have migrated almost entirely into the digital realm, printing only a few of the best photos.

Our photos are instantly accessible through web galleries, making them easier to access when we are at our computers. However, we are often distracted by a myriad other tasks when we are at our computers, and looking at our photo galleries isn’t a top priority. This significantly changes our interaction with photos. Less often do we stumble across photographic prints while leafing through our bookcase or shuffling through the papers on the kitchen table. We largely view photos when sitting down at our computer, with the same presentation every time — ambient light, desktop background, web-based presentation. Laptops change this slightly, allowing us to take the same presentation to somewhat different places, such as the living room sofa, kitchen table, or hotel room.

What devices allow us to free digital information from the computer context? For music, the iPod has been incredibly successful. We get the best of both worlds — the ability to easily acquire and transfer digital music from one location to another without being confined to the computer. For the most part, we have gained so much with digital music and lost little. With an iPod, you may listen to the music practically anywhere, especially connecting it to traditional presentation systems such as the home or car stereo. You can even play your music at a community dance or party. What have we lost? Audiophile quality, the physical sensation of picking up an album, flipping through the liner notes, and listening to an entire album, especially in order. Mostly, people find that the losses have been worth the gains.

Amazon is trying hard to push the digital book with the Kindle, trying to resolve skepticism about readability, page turning, and portability with a specialized device. However, many still wonder what there is to gain from a $400 device when an actual book is surprisingly versatile and accessible.

With the holidays coming, I have taken another look at digital picture frames. I have always wanted a digital picture frame, in order to gain back the serendipity that comes from coming across a framed picture while walking into a bedroom at home or strolling a hallway at work. I am pleased to see that digital picture frames are diversifying and becoming more capable. When I first examined them some years ago, Ceiva was the leader, offering a subscription-based system. I wanted to avoid monthly fees. I can’t imagine paying ten dollars a month to display photos from the Internet. About last year, I noticed a number of new models that displayed photos from portable media, such as media cards and USB drives. No monthly fees apply, but you are limited to a physical card, so it’s harder to send photos to the grandparents, for instance.

Today, I took another look. PhotoVu has gone for the high end. Their least expensive frame is at 17″ for $700. Frames are matted, and you can even choose from a variety of frame borders. It’s especially cool that PhotoVu permits multiple non-subscription formats: USB drive, Picasa, iPhoto, or laptop connection. This is far preferable than paying for a proprietary monthly service. However, the cost is still too high for me, considering that you can practically get a laptop computer for the same price. Some Windows-friendly frames have also appeared, but I shy away from the proprietary lock-in. I’m looking for small, inexpensive, wifi-enabled, and simple to use. I’ll keep looking for the perfect device, or perhaps I’ll just wait until next year!

Update 12/15/2007 I bought the DigitalLiving 7″ frame from Target for my parents. To my surprise, I found out that it’s billed as a children’s picture frame, a surprise because it has the highest-quality image at $90 of any device I’ve seen. I’m not sure how tangible the DigitalLiving brand is. It only appears at Target and doesn’t appear to have a web site or product line of its own. The frame itself works great — it picks up images automagically from USB drives or media cards and is very simple to operate. I gave up wireless access and battery power to get this device and am completely happy with that decision.

Update 2/6/2008 Now this is more like it: EStarling Digital Wireless


  1. Ben Chun says:

    Make your own! I built one out of an old Pentium laptop that ran Win95, and used it happily until the backlights in the display burned out. That machine easily did 10 years of service.

    There’s a bunch of web pages out there showing step-by-step how people have done this. But it’s pretty much common sense and figuring it out is fun too. You get that real-life physical interaction of stripping the plastic off, fitting the parts into the frame, securing everything, etc. If you can scrounge up any old free laptop, I highly encourage you to DIY!

  2. rkassissieh says:

    Now, there’s an idea! I dug around and found a number of good sites, including the following.

    Older laptops tend to have noisier fans. I wonder how people have dealt with that.

  3. Paul Monheimer says:

    Gave my wife an inexpensive digital frame last year. Now all those small Compact Flash cards that aren’t useful in cameras are in use again. The digital frame uses such low-res photos that I can fit over 1000 on a CF card. Depending on the company coming over, we have lots of trips/events to choose from.

  4. Ronald R. Itle says:

    Can I take pictures from my computer directly to the picture frame, using a USB cable. My computer uses a mmc/sd memory card on the back of the picture fram it has mmc/xd slot are these cmpatible. I have a model dpf-7705t 7" digital picture frame.

    If you could help \\ Thanks