Artful Comeback

Some ideas are too cool, too soon. Here are two Seattle-bred technologies that look promising the second time around.

A FAILED IDEA isn't always a bad idea. It might be an idea whose time hasn't come. That's especially true in the short history of personal technology. Hundreds of really bad ideas have piled on and buried good ones in a mad rush to make money off of the latest big thing. Recall the boom-bust cycles of personal computer software (early 1990s), multimedia CD-ROMs (mid-1990s), and the Web (late 1990s)? Sometimes bad ideas suck up all the development capital. Sometimes the idea is good, but the market (people, price, hardware) isn't ready.

Now two Seattle-born concepts are back from the dead to test this hypothesis. And both, coincidentally, mix technology with art.

ART, IN THE FIRST case, for your TV. In 1989, Bill Gates floated the then-grandiose idea of screens in a home that could display changing works of great art. But his Interactive Home Systems never was able to commercialize the concept. (Gates later did it for himself in his Medina mansion and received a patent on the technique.)

Fast-forward 15 years to the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas last month, where Seattle-based RGB Labs was showing its wares at a trade show for the first time. On a large, flat plasma TV, startlingly crisp reproductions of Van Gogh's The Bedroom and Degas' The Racehorses slowly appeared on the screen, occasionally with artist and title information superimposed, the paintings changing every few minutes. On a different screen below, public-domain images of similar Impressionist art flashed by every few seconds—colors washed out, images dull. The flat-panel TV sets were virtually the same, yet the RGB Labs' vivid depictions invited you to stare, linger, and point out brush strokes.

It was a practical matter that led to the creation of RGB Labs. Scott Lipsky wanted to display art on his home theater system's 50-inch plasma screen. But when he looked into it in late 2002, he found it wasn't easy. So he did the research, founded RGB Labs, and launched the GalleryPlayer service nearly a year later.

RGB Labs' business is to provide a subscription service of changing "galleries" to businesses—customers likely to have the interest in a high-end atmosphere and the money to pay for high-quality art. For a $3,000 setup fee (which includes a computer system) and $195 each month, a hotel, corporate office, or other location gets a set of monthly masterpieces, updated via CD-ROM or the Internet. Subscribers can display the rotating art on flat-panel TV screens they already have in their lobbies, boardrooms, or hallways. The galleries include fine art and photographs, and a new licensing agreement with Octavo adds rare and historical books, such as a Gutenberg Bible.

Several firms have signed on. The Claremont Hotel in Seattle and many of the King County Library System branches are early customers. And RGB Labs plans to have a home version of the service available for less than $20 a month before the end of this year.

While Gates' home decorating might have been the inspiration, RGB Labs says Gates—and his patent—aren't part of the company. But an offshoot of the original Interactive Home Systems is. Corbis, which licenses high-quality digital images and is still owned by Gates, is described as having a "comprehensive relationship" with RGB Labs, including granting exclusive rights to distribute thousands of museum-quality digital reproductions of art and photographs to RGB Labs' market.

THE SECOND REVIVED idea is art for your PC. In late 1994, finishing touches were put on what was to become a groundbreaking multimedia CD-ROM: A Passion for Art: Renoir, Cezanne, Matisse and Dr. Barnes. Passion was a story-based tour of the private—and hard to see—collection of the Impressionist and Postimpressionist art of the Barnes Foundation outside of Philadelphia. Though the title initially sold well (as I recall, having consulted on its naming and marketing at the time), it required more sophisticated hardware than most personal computers had. And its publisher—again, Corbis—eventually determined it only wanted to be in the digital-image-licensing business, not the multimedia CD-ROM business. By 1997, A Passion for Art was out of print.

Fast-forward nearly a decade. The Barnes Foundation, financially strapped, continued to get requests every week from people wanting to purchase the unavailable CD-ROM. Working with original producer and director Curtis Wong (now head of Next Media Research at Microsoft Research), Passion was updated through volunteer and low-cost efforts and republished by the Barnes Foundation itself ($35, store.barnesfoundation.org). Now the walk-through tours of the Barnes galleries and the works of art are at detailed, 1024 x 768 resolution and in millions of colors, and the audio commentary and music are in stereo—much closer to a real-life museum experience.

WHAT'S DIFFERENT this time? In the case of GalleryPlayer, broadband Internet connections and flat-panel LCD and plasma TVs have finally gone mainstream, making it easier to deliver and display the vision. Research firm IDC predicts that by 2007, dropping prices and interest in HDTV will give flat panels 27 percent of all TV sales—some 50 million units. In the case of A Passion for Art, what had been cutting-edge multimedia PC systems are now available for under $1,000, complete with a high-quality LCD monitor, making it easier for people who buy the CD-ROM to assume it will run, not hope that it will. The technology aimed at the masses has caught up with the concepts.

The PC industry is now old enough for good concepts to resurface and test demand again. In tech, bad timing can kill more products than bad ideas.

Frank Catalano is a tech-industry analyst, consultant, and author who still credits the original A Passion for Art with saving him from dogs playing poker. He can be reached via www.catalanoconsulting.com.

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