Two-and-a-half years ago, this was the vision that birthed the NYC-based startup Electric Objects, led by founder/CEO Jake Levine and founding curator Zoë Salditch.
"Electric Objects started as an experiment: Can I build a computer that doesn’t demand your attention? That doesn’t make you feel bad, fill you with dread?" explains Levine in a recent phone interview. That thought, coupled with his observation that there was no real, easy way to decorate the home with digital art, led Levine to develop the EO1, "a computer made for art."
In July 2014, a prototype of the EO1 launched on Kickstarter, with a campaign that aimed to raise $25,000 towards product development and production. The final tally after 30 days? $787,612—a whopping 3,150 percent over the goal, and a testament to the the fervent community at the intersection of art, design, and tech on the crowdfunding site and the wider internet.
The product itself measures about 22 by 13 inches, with a 1.71-inch depth and weight of about 10 to 15 pounds. Salditch, whom Levine enlisted early on to develop content and community on the EO1 platform, says that a lot of the early design decisions focused on creating something that "doesn’t feel like another TV or computer monitor."
"Can I build a computer that doesn’t demand your attention? That doesn’t make you feel bad, fill you with dread?"
This includes everything from the orientation of the product—it stands vertically, rather than horizontally like typical screens around the house—to a matte surface that allows images to read clear from any angle. The most salient feedback from users so far? According to Levine, it’s that the EO1 feels "physical," "present," and "almost heavier than a computer."
For Electric Objects, creating a screen that people don’t hate is a pivotal start—the other key parts of the equation involve the art itself and how people interact with it.
If you buy a EO1 right now, currently priced at $299 each, you’d get access to approximately 15,000 pieces of art—500 of which would be exclusive pieces commissioned for the platform as part of Art Club, a fund of $100,000 that hopes to add another 1,000 pieces by the end of this year. The remaining 14,500 or so are all user-generated. The whole catalog includes digital illustrations, GIFs, animations, videos, photographs, and various forms of internet-based art.
"Most people don’t really engage with today’s artists, because those artists are filtered into a gallery system that keeps them off-limits to the vast majority of humanity either by raising prices or making it really difficult to discover them," says Levine. "We want to say [to artists]: Hey, this is a really great platform for you to reach millions of people."
This is, of course, a bold claim that will keep Electric Objects busy for a while.
In April, the EO1 just introduced a playlist feature, through which users can create custom sequences of art based on moods, genres, or anything else—just as they’d do for music on Spotify. In about a month’s time, over 1,800 distinct playlists have been created on the platform and the reaction has been strongly positive.
The feature also allows EO1 users to follow their friends’ playlists, which, according to Levine, completely changes how art is discovered and experienced. "Instead of surfing through [the collection] and finding a piece and displaying it, you’ve given up control to someone else," he says. "Walk into your home one day, and there might be a new piece of art that surprises and delights you."
If EO1 is anything like a Spotify for digital art though, there’s inevitably also the question of how artists get paid. Beyond the Art Club fund for commissioned pieces, the company will be exploring what kind of art marketplace can exist on the platform down the road. So far, the company has mainly focused on getting as many EO1s out in the world as possible, so that artists will be guaranteed a large enough audience to begin with.
"We don’t want to send checks for two cents," says Salditch.
Ant then there are the technical challenges of serving up boundary-pushing art. For Salditch, the most exciting and tricky type of work on EO1 is internet-based art. Since EO1 is connected to the internet, it can load web pages like any computer, which means there’s potential for pieces that are more dynamic than a static illustration or looping animation.
One of Salditch’s favorite examples of this type of work on the platform is WaroOrPeace by Zach Gage, which loads a site that displays either "war" or "peace" daily depending on which is the more popular search term that day. Another prime example is Lichens by Adam Ferris, which uses a web-based randomizer to create unique displays that "develop slowly, growing from infinitesimal dots into cascading rays of light."
According to Salditch, innovative internet-based art tends to pose interesting questions for Electric Objects engineers, who need to make sure the works can be supported and displayed just as the artists envisioned.
Meanwhile, the company is also reaching out to a part of the art world people may be more familiar with. This month, Electric Objects is announcing a partnership with a group of major museums and cultural institutions, like the New York Public Library, all of whom have signed up for an open content license that will bring some of the most iconic works—"the bedrock of art history and art education," in Levine’s words—onto EO1.
"It's a weird world, weird product—you’re going to come into EO1 and you’re going to see a piece by Van Gogh next to a piece by an 18-year-old digital artist in Bushwick," says Levine. "But what we’re finding is that our customers have not just a tolerance, but an eagerness to explore what it’s like having both of those things in a home."
In short, EO1’s hopes and dreams can sort of be summed up by its name. Levine recalls the original intention for "EO1," a subtle moniker that hints at new iterations: "We wanted to both help the technology fade into the background but also encourage people to think about what the future could hold."
Will EO10 be a razor-thin, bendable, motion-activated screen, or something we can’t even imagine yet? Stay tuned.