How Digital Picture Frames Work

By: Karim Nice
digital photo frame
Essential Gadgets Image Gallery The GiiNii digital photo frame. See more pictures of essential gadgets.
Photo courtesy of GiiNii

We all have at least one technologically challenged relative. We can e-mail photos or post them on a personal Web page for some of our loved ones, but there are others who want nothing to do with a computer, let alone the Internet.

The perfect gadget for sharing photos with the computerless is the digital picture frame. This is a device about the size and shape of an ordinary picture frame. It contains an LCD screen, which displays multiple photos in a slideshow format, and it connects to the Internet via phone line to download new pictures and information to display on the screen.


Several companies have made digital picture frames, including Polaroid, Kodak, Ceiva and GiiNii. The frames are fairly similar in construction, though they do offer some different features.

In this edition of HowStuffWorks, we'll take a look at the Ceiva Digital Photo Receiver. Before we get into exactly how it works, let's see what it does.



Ceiva and the Computerless

This picture frame is designed to enable people with no computer, no digital camera and no computer skills to benefit from some aspects of the digital boom. The idea is that a person who does have a computer, a digital camera and computer skills buys the frame, sets up the account and passes it on.

Once the account is set up, you (the person with the computer) upload photos to the Ceiva Web site. Each night, the digital picture frame (in the computerless person's house) uses the phone line to connect to the Ceiva servers and download any new pictures.


The next morning, the new pictures automatically show up in the slideshow rotation. You can also control all of the frame's settings via the Web site. Here are some of the settings that can be adjusted:

  • The time that the frame turns on and turns off
  • The slideshow interval (how long between photos)
  • The dial-up phone numbers (in case the frame moves to a different area code)


What's in the Frame

This circuit card contains all of the components that drive the digital picture frame.
Photo courtesy Ceiva

The frame is actually a very simple computer. It has most of the same components as the computer on your desktop, but they're a lot simpler in the frame because they only have to perform a single task.


The central processing unit (CPU) in the Ceiva digital picture frame is similar to the kind used in small, electronic handheld games. The most processor-intensive task performed by this CPU is downloading pictures from the Web site. The rest of the time, it doesn't break a sweat.



The frame has some ROM memory to store the operating system. It also has some Flash memory, which is where the pictures, settings and some of the operating software live. Both types of memory are persistent -- no data is lost if the unit is unplugged.


The frame has a 33.6-Kbps modem, which it uses to connect to the Internet and download the new photos you post.


The display is a 640x480-pixel, passive-matrix liquid crystal display (LCD) with a viewing area of about 5 by 7 inches (13 by 18 cm). This type of display is thin enough that the digital frame isn't much thicker than an ordinary picture frame. The pictures are displayed in 12-bit color, which means that approximately 4,100 different colors can be presented on the screen.


The only user-operated controls on the frame are a black button, which adjusts the brightness of the display, and a white button that turns the frame on when the user first plugs it in and can also be used to manually dial in.

Operating System

The Ceiva frame uses an embedded operating system called PSOS. This operating system is designed for devices like PDAs, electrical-testing equipment and set-top boxes.

Let's take a look at how the Ceiva frame works.


Creating a Digital Gallery

Once the frame has been plugged into a phone line and a power outlet, it starts to display the pictures that were originally stored on the frame. If the user presses and holds the white button on the back of the frame, it dials up and connects to the Internet.

The $50-per-year fee for the Ceiva service includes access to the Internet by way of a local phone number. The connection to the Internet is used only to download the new photos and settings to the frame. There is no interactivity, no Web access and no e-mail. The device is designed to behave like a picture frame, not a computer.


Once the frame is connected to the Internet, it logs on to Ceiva's servers using a unique serial number. Once logged on, the frame compares the pictures already on the frame to the ones waiting to be sent, downloading any new ones. It also downloads any new settings.

When it is finished downloading, the frame hangs up the phone line and starts displaying the new photos one after another. It turns itself off at the set time in the evening, and back on at the set time in the morning.

Now let's take a look at the Web side of this device.


The Web Side

The "My Home" section of the Ceiva Web site

You use the Ceiva Web site to control just about every aspect of the device. After you buy the frame, you go to the Web site to register it and pay for the service. This creates an account on the site that is exclusive to your frame. You can then upload your pictures and determine the settings.

Now you can give the frame to a friend or family member who doesn't have a computer. All that person has to do is plug the frame into a phone line and a power outlet and hit the white button on the back -- simple tasks for even most technologically resistant among us. The first time the frame connects, it dials a toll-free number and downloads the settings you created from the Web site. One of the settings is the local dial-up number to be used by the frame. Now that the frame has these settings installed, it connects to the Internet again, this time using the local dial-up number, to download the pictures you posted to the Ceiva site.


By registering the frame on the Web site, you establish a "My Home" section. From this personalized area, you can control all of the frames on your account.

At "My Home," you can:

  • Set up channels - Various content providers have signed up with Ceiva to provide daily content in the form of images that can be downloaded by the frame. For instance, the Weather Channel provides a local three-day forecast that automatically updates each time the frame dials in.
  • Send pictures - You can send pictures to frames you registered, as well as to other frames that people have given you permission to access. You have at your disposal an online photo album that can hold 1,000 pictures, and the frame can be set to randomly select images from this album. You can also e-mail the photos in your album to anyone with a computer and an e-mail account. When you send a picture, you can adjust some of the settings and add text or borders. The "Send a Picture" section of the Ceiva Web site
  • See what's on the frame - You can see which pictures are currently displaying on each frame on your account, as well as which pictures are waiting to be downloaded and which ones have been deleted.
  • Change the frame's settings - You can control such settings as the name of the frame, the slideshow interval, the time when the frame turns on and off and the local dial-up numbers. The "Settings" section of the Ceiva Web site

Now let's take a look at what the future holds for digital picture frames.


Tomorrow's Digital Frames

The Ceiva II
Photo courtesy Ceiva

The next-generation Ceiva frame will add some neat features such as the ability to print pictures. You'll be able to print them either on a special local printer or remotely through a service that prints the pictures and sends them to you in the mail.

It will also have the ability to play recorded sounds with each picture, a CompactFlash memory slot to display pictures directly from a digital camera, and a small remote to control features such as printing and some of the settings that can only be adjusted via the Web in the current Ceiva frame.


Even with these added features, you'll be able to control the frame via the Web, so the new Ceiva will still be simple enough to give to your technologically challenged loved ones.

For more information, check out the links on the next page.