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HIGH DEFINITION: As sales of large digital televisions multiply, several firms are selling services to fill them with artwork

When public library administrators in King County, Wash., went searching for artwork to display in their lobbies, they settled on an unusual frame: a television.

Near the front entrance of Shoreline Library, just north of Seattle, paintings by Van Gogh, Renoir, and other artists cycle across the 42-inch screen of a plasma TV. An even larger television, 50 inches measured diagonally, is scheduled for installation in the nearby Bellevue Regional Library and will soon carry the same high-definition digital images.

RGB Labs Inc., a start-up in Seattle, supplies the artwork through a $3,000 server attached to the television. The image changes every five minutes, rotating through about 150 photographs, classical paintings, and contemporary pieces.

"The art comes across as pretty high quality, so we thought it would be a reasonable addition to our collection," said Jed Moffitt, associate director of information technology for the King County Library System.

Sales of large digital televisions have multiplied in the last few years and are expected to keep up the furious pace, as technologies improve and prices drop. As these monstrous screens take up more wall space in living rooms and public places, several companies have begun selling services for filling them with artwork.

"When it's not going, you've got just this big chunk of electronics there," said Larry Graham, a managing member of Black Lowe & Graham, a law firm in Seattle that installed a 60-inch plasma TV in its conference room.

Graham's law firm uses the $10,000 TV for software presentations, entertainment nights with the lawyers' families, and displaying artwork with the RGB Labs' GalleryPlayer.

More than 229,000 plasma televisions will be sold in the United States this year, up from 16,000 in 2001, according to the Consumer Electronics Association, a trade group in Arlington, Va. The association predicts that more than 2 million plasma TVs will be sold by 2007.

Sales of liquid crystal display, or LCD, televisions, which are smaller but have better resolution than plasma TVs, are expected to grow even more quickly. About 428,000 will be sold this year, increasing to 4 million by 2007, the Consumer Electronics Association predicted.

Big televisions have become such a big business that some computing giants are beginning to sell them. Gateway Inc. is selling plasma and LCD televisions, and Dell Inc. and Motorola Inc. have said they also plan to jump on the flat-screen TV bandwagon.

A few companies are selling alternative ways to hide large televisions. With its Hide and Chic product, Media Decor of Fort Lauderdale, Fla., will build a wooden frame to fit around your TV. A reproduction of a famous painting (choose from Picasso's "Three Musicians," Kandinsky's "Squares-Circles" and others) is placed on a screen that scrolls down, at the touch of a remote control, to cover the television's face.

Solar Shading Systems of Newport Beach, Calif., offers a similar product.

But Moffitt said he liked being able to change the artwork on the Shoreline Library's television regularly, so visitors could see paintings they might never see in a museum. He admitted to worrying that the images would look more like a computer screen-saver than a painting, but the television's backlighting sets the colors aglow, he said.

"If you show a Van Gogh, you can see the thickness of the paint," he said.

In the summer of 2002, Anthony Wood, founder of ReplayTV, one of the first digital video recorders, bought a 50-inch flat-screen TV for his vacation home in Oregon.

"I didn't just want it sitting there, I wanted to show art on it," he said.

So Wood, a serial entrepreneur, created a company in Palo Alto, Calif., called Roku. The start-up's $500 digital media player is mostly designed to show personal art, like digital photographs and videos, in high definition on plasma televisions. Roku also sells "art packs," which include 50 works from Botticelli, Klimt, and other artists, for $70.

While Roku is marketing its art service mostly to consumers at home, RGB Labs is pitching its GalleryPlayer to hotels, corporations, casinos, restaurants, cruise ships, and other businesses. RGB Labs charges $3,000 for the server that stores and loads the images, then it adds a monthly subscription fee of $195 that includes regular updates with new images.

"Think of what Muzak did for music," said Mark Sherman, vice president of emerging markets and products for Corbis, a Seattle company owned by Microsoft Corp. chairman Bill Gates that licenses digital images to both RGB Labs and Roku. "There's nothing to say there couldn't be a similar service that's a Muzak for digital pictures."

Chris Gaither can be reached at

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