Turning Flat TVs Into Digital Art Galleries

Did you get one of those new, flat digital television sets last year? Such fancy TVs may offer better, sharper image quality than standard TV sets, but there's still one problem. There are not a lot of "good" TV shows to watch on them.

Local TV stations and cable networks are surely beginning to produce and televise more shows in "high-definition," the digital standards that result in the much-improved video images. Still, in many areas of the United States, HDTV programming is limited to just a few hours of the day.

Now Beon Media in Seattle has a plan to fill the empty hours.

This week, at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, the company will introduce a new "programming" service called GalleryPlayer. It will allow subscribers to purchase and display high-resolution digital images of "museum-quality" art and photos on their high-definition digital TV displays.

Artful Displays, The Geek's Way

The idea of the service came to company founder Scott Lipsky two years ago when he wanted to show off the capabilities his 50-inch plasma TV set by displaying artwork. But getting high-resolution images was expensive since only professional photo services -- usually used by publications and media outlets -- had the digital photos he was looking for. What's more, digital services to deliver the images to his home electronically didn't exist -- nor were they easy to create.

In 1989, Microsoft's Bill Gates tried to develop such a high-tech art display called Interactive Home Systems. And although Gates holds patents on the idea, even the mighty software giant couldn't successfully commercialize the idea. (Gates did, however, install such an automated digital art display in his own home in Medina, Wash.)

But for the past two years, Beon Media has been working with several companies to make a digital art gallery service possible. The company has a working relationship with Corbis, an offshoot of Microsoft's Interactive Home Systems that now provides digital images to professional media outlets.

And for the past year and a half, Beon has cobbled together a system that works for corporate customers -- say, a hotel that wants digital art for its lobby's flat panel displays. But Lipsky says the rapid consumer adoption of technology -- fast Internet connections and HDTV sets -- is a sure signal that the time is right to bring the digital art service home.

"There's so much hunger for high-definition content and there's not much out there," said Lipsky. "Consumers have these beautiful, flat-panel HDTVs hanging on the wall and there's nothing on them. They're just big, blank, black holes."

A PC's Still Key -- For Now

The GalleryPlayer, for now, requires a home media PC -- a home computer using the Media Center Edition of Microsoft's Windows software -- which can connect to high-resolution displays such as digital TVs in the living room.

Subscribers can access the GalleryPlayer Web site to choose copyrighted images from various sources, including National Geographic, Corbis and Time-Life. Individual images are priced as low as $1 while collections -- say a selection of works by Van Gogh -- start at $8.95 for 15 images.

The digital images are encrypted and locked so they can only be displayed on the subscriber's home media PC. Such limiting steps helps protect the images from being illegally copied or "Napsterized" -- a fear held by the media companies that own the copyrights to the visual art.

Lipsky says that while the service is PC- and Web-based for now, the company is in talks for other distribution methods. It's possible, he says, that the GalleryPlayer service could be offered via digital cable TV networks, much like an additional "pay-per-view" service. Lipsky, however, didn't reveal if such a partnership was in the works.

A Window to the Near Future?

Still, industry analysts are a bit skeptical about whether GalleryPlayer will be a huge consumer success.

"Their real market opportunity is driven more by vertical markets than general consumers," said Tim Bajarin, principal analyst at Creative Strategies. "There's an obvious desire for a broader market, but consumers are pretty touchy on price."

But others say services such as GalleryPlayer point to an exciting future.

Rob Enderle, president and principal analyst at the Enderle Group, predicts that as display technology becomes even sharper and cheaper it won't be too long before displays become wall-sized windows that can create virtual vistas.

"You could be in a New York City apartment building and instead of the Manhattan skyline, you could be looking out on Paris, or maybe even an Amazonian waterfall," said Enderle. "It's just pictures and art for now. But we're moving down the road to true virtualization."

Enderle says such technology is probably still 10 years away. But early services like GalleryPlayer can help drive toward such a future by appealing to early techie adopters.

"Early adopters tend to be very tech-savvy and love to show off," said Enderle. "This really ties itself to high-definition TV. And the more that gets out there, the more popular this will get."

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