Inventor Portrait: Julia Truchsess

July 20, 2008

Part of a continuing series of inventor portraits.

Inventor: Julia Truchsess
Invention: Digital Picture Frame
Brand Name: Digi-Frame

After building a successful career inventing electronic toys including MicroJammers, Rhythm Rods, and Singing Bouncy Baby, Julia came up with the idea for digital picture frames in the late 90s. When the Digi-Frame debuted, larger companies were also launching similar products, but Digi-Frame was the “Rolls Royce of Frames” according to reviewers. The story of how Digi-Frame came to be, and why it’s no longer around, is a pretty interesting one, and Julia tells it in her own words after the photos. Here is Julia with one of Digi-Frame’s large models:

Julia in her home office with her husband:

And here’s Julia’s workspace, full of electronic stuff I don’t understand, and a display of dolls and toys featuring technology she invented:

  

What follows is Julia’s explanation of Digi-Frame’s history. The product no longer exists, but the original Digi-Frame website is preserved here. And now, Julia:

“Sometime in late 1998 or early 1999 I was preparing to go to Asia on one of my frequent business trips. Invariably my friends and associates over there would ask me for recent photos of my family, and as I was looking around for some snapshots to take, it struck me that it would be wonderful to have a pocket-sized device with a built-in LCD screen and storage that one could carry around to show photos on. Digital photography was just getting off the ground at the time. As it turns out, Apple’s iPod photo (released years later) was very much the device I envisioned at the time.

“In any case, the more I thought about it, the more I became convinced that the potential market for such a device (and perhaps eventually, if LCD prices came down, similar devices with larger screens) could be huge. For years I’d been on the lookout for a product idea good enough to justify abandoning my service business for manufacturing and marketing. It’s generally easier to sell a company that makes a product than a small one that sells services. Through 1999 we continued inventing and designing toy products while laying the groundwork for Digi-Frame - creating a new corporation, securing trademarks and a web domain, and recruiting more staff. We hired Jaejin Chang, a very talented industrial designer, and from Australia, software whiz-kid Lewin Edwards. Jerry Klein, a seasoned marketing professional from California, came on board and rounded out the team.

“Jerry convinced us that we had to have at least a 5.6” screen size for our original desktop frame offering, and he was right. I secured a manufacturing line of credit in Taiwan, found a good factory, and we were on our way. By early 2000 we were no longer doing any toy work and the DF-560 5.6” frame was introduced at the Photo Marketing International trade show in Las Vegas, creating a huge buzz in the industry. The product received great publicity and rave reviews in magazines and media everywhere, and distributors worldwide were clamoring for product. Kodak, Ceiva, and Sony introduced frame products around the same time, but ours seemed to have the feature set most wanted by consumers at the time.

“We then started looking for more investors to infuse the business with more operating capital, but the tech stock crash of October 2000 was disastrous for us. By spring 2001 things were starting to get tight, and we just couldn’t reach ‘critical mass’ with our limited resources. When our LCD supplier discontinued our screen it proved to be a crippling blow — it would take us a few months to redesign the product to use an alternative screen, and our investors refused to let us fill the interim using an adapter board which would have reduced our profit margin in the short term, but allowed us to maintain market presence. We hung on for a few more years making small production runs in our New York facility of the large 17-inch model targeted at commercial users, but ultimately declared bankruptcy at the end of 2004.

“Ultimately 2007 turned out to be ‘the year of the digital frame’ — LCD prices had dropped to the point where frames could be sold for $100 - $200, and they were everywhere at Christmas. My vision was validated, but my timing was off.”

Julia’s website: Pragmatic Designs, Inc.