Just launched on Kickstarter, Fireside is bicoastal startup that promises to revolutionize digital photography—not in how we create images and videos but how we share and enjoy them for posterity.
"1,000 songs in your pocket."
So goes the tagline for the very first iPod, released 13 years ago (nearly to the day), a quaint conceit in hindsight. In fact, history has shown that the mp3 player and iTunes alike are merely incremental steps along the path to more versatile hardware and software: Smartphones are capable of fulfilling our listening needs beyond our wildest imaginations. With the concurrent advent of 3- and 4G networks, mobile devices can extract melodies from the ether, while streaming services offer unprecedented depth and breadth when it comes to choices and recommendations, neatly categorized with tags and filtered through metadata.
A database with millions upon millions of songs is one thing, but what about other media? Video is a younger cousin of audio to the extent that it too has exploded with the twofold emergence of online hosting platforms—viz. YouTube and Vimeo—and widely accessible hardware. GoPro is a case study in itself, but even our phones are powerful enough to capture everything from historic events and major occasions to random moments between those milestones.
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But if it's easier than ever to document our lives, the friction occurs at a different point in the user experience. For one thing, having hundreds of thousands of photos and videos means that each one becomes a proverbial drop in the pond, and organizing/editing them can be a chore in itself. Then there's the incongruity between shooting—for which a small but powerful device is ideal—and actually viewing the results. A glass rectangle the size of the palm of your hand may be perfect for taking a call, accessing a music library and snapping a selfie, but it's hardly the best format for appreciating the visuals that inundate our screens these days.
Indeed, the latest generation of iPhones marks a slight concession to Apple's competitors. Tim, Jony & co. decided that screen could stand to be bigger after all, and the sales figures validate the hypothesis thus far. With a screen that is nearly 40% bigger than that of its predecessor, the iPhone 6 is certainly easier on the eyes, not to mention the obligatory improvements in camera technology.
But it turns out that the ability to take better photos and store them in one's pocket is only half of the equation. We've all been there: We want to show someone an older photo of that Halloween costume or that trip to Paris or that street art from a few years back, and despite
camera rolls' perfunctory affordance to sort images by location or date, the virtual 'shoebox' of chronological thumbnail images leaves a lot to be desired.
Conversely—and arguably worse still—we often forget about older photos and videos as it gets buried under the figurative weight of new memories. As with ring-bound albums, one-hour-photo envelopes and dusty shoeboxes, we simply neglect to resurface bygone years despite the easy access of digital storage. Sure, there are Flickr and Facebook albums full of memories, but the former rarely occasions revisiting and the latter offers far too many distractions to offer a meaningful viewing experience.
Enter the Fireside Smartframe. As with the iPod, it's not the first device to do what it does—as you might have guessed, it's a digital picture frame—but it is intended to be the first to do it well. Co-founder Andy Jagoe introduces it as Pandora or SONOS for photos: the former reference point has far better name recognition and captures the data-as-genome element of the playlists, but the latter is slightly more accurate in that it is a source-agnostic hardware (and quasi-IoT) system. He and fellow co-founder Don Lehman acknowledged as much when they demo'd the Smartframe for me last week, in anticipation of the launch of their Kickstarter campaign this morning [disclosure: Lehman has contributed to Core77 in various capacities for over a decade].Jagoe goes with Pandora in the pitch video, but the paradox remains unresolved. On one hand, the contextual content curation securely organizes your photos in the cloud, which is the major differentiator of Fireside in the digital photo category. But it so happens that the premium hardware is also essential, and, like SONOS and other wireless music systems, it's difficult to imagine how such a device might improve your life until you actually live with it and it just works.
But first things first: Yes, Fireside works with any existing photo sharing or storage platform, online or off, and from initial setup—uploading your existing photo/video library(-ies)—to subsequently managing the service and controlling the Smartframe, Fireside is accessed through the mobile or web app. Whenever any media is added to one's library, the service will index and organize it by date, location and various other criteria (holidays, people, etc.); well aware of the next question that some might ask, Jagoe emphasized that privacy and security are paramount and that users retain full control and ownership of the data. Once the service and Smartframe are up and running, Fireside automatically syncs photos from your device (or preferred platform) in real-time, extracting the data while preserving the original—again, all in the cloud—for $99/year; the frame comes with a year of free service.
Lehman, for his part, geeked out over the materials and specs of the Smartframe, such as the melamine shell and wrapped cord, which come in either all-black or white/gray. The 15”, 1080p screen is easily as good as any of the images or footage that it will display, but Jagoe notes that they ruled out a cost-prohibitive touchscreen early on. The frame is heavy (and bulky) enough to convey that it is not intended to be handled like a tablet; nor does it feature any buttons (or screws) to speak of. Yet it is meant to be movable for use in different contexts, and the metal loop on the back serves as both a leg and a wall-mounting mechanism. The cleat-like walnut hook is expressly designed to be handsome enough to leave uncovered in, say, your living room while you have the Smartframe on your kitchen counter, recalling glorious dinner parties past as you cook your next masterful meal.
Say what you want about ubiquitous screens, but I can see the appeal of the visual equivalent of background noise. The fact that Lehman had dialed Jagoe in via videochat (from Palo Alto, where he is based) made for an emphatic contrast with the Smartframe, which sat next to the laptop; even though Lehman and I were passively regarding both screens, I often found myself captivated by the Smartframe even after the preloaded content had cycled through many times over. (The images were of Jagoe and his family during various holidays and outings; I wondered what it would be like to see my rather more esoteric photo stream in the frame.) Videos in particular play well: 80% of the beta testers said they "switched default capture mode from pictures to video because of Fireside."
Yet for all the differences in the details, the Fireside Smartframe will invariably draw comparisons to its recently Kickstarted competitors, the Electric Objects EO1 and the FRM Frame, both of which are billed as digital frames for exhibiting artwork. They also happen to be designed for artists by artists (and art enthusiasts on both counts) and are far more similar to each other than to the Fireside Smartframe.
Even so, the EO1 and Framed also point to a wide variety of other use cases for Fireside, from commercial applications to the possibility of subscribing to curated playlists. Although Jagoe acknowledged that Fireside could easily be adapted for those scenarios, he expressed a singular focus on launching it as a family-oriented product, noting how the Smartframe enables photo sharing across generations and geography.
So too do the Pandora and SONOS analogies fall short of capturing the essence of Fireside. It's a doubly disparate device: Not only do sights and sounds stake different claims on our attention by their very definitions, but your photos and videos are yours in a way that your music is not. In this sense, the EO1 and Framed are more akin to music streaming services, in which artists are creating content that is distributed and consumed through a device.
On the other hand, some users might be curious to try Fireside's photo/video service independently of the hardware (this is available to backers); after all, the Smartframe could also be construed as a tiny television or external monitor, and we already have any number of other screens that can display a playlist of photos or videos. But as a pared-down, single-purpose product, I'm tempted to liken it to a Kindle: The Fireside Smartframe is made for content that, by its very nature, can be viewed on other devices but is best delivered through a dedicated one.