HOME
          
LATEST STORY
Where you get your news depends on where you stand on the issues
ABOUT                    SUBSCRIBE
Sept. 11, 2013, 1:30 p.m.
prince

Can you build a better GIF? Zeega wants to remake the aged animation format for mobile

The multimedia storytelling company is experimenting with a new file format to make the animated images easier to use on mobile devices.

We have become a nation of GIFs.

Okay, maybe that’s a slight exaggeration. But the image format has long since migrated from Tumblrcentric sideshow into the mass media. Yes, it’s BuzzFeed, but it’s also NBC News.

But there’s plenty of room for improvement — if not in style, at least in efficiency. That’s an issue that the team at Zeega is trying to work on these days, and they think they’ve got an answer.

“It’s a uniquely emotional format,” said Jesse Shapins, co-founder of Zeega. “I think it’s one of the reasons they are so popular. They’re like condensed emoticons.” (Or, as in the GIF above, a way to indicate that rotund Detroit Tigers first baseman Prince Fielder might not enjoy salads.)

Condensed emoticons, or perhaps shrunken movies. The reason GIFs have seen a resurgence has as much to do with their age as their expressive qualities — the format’s been around since the 1980s, and it’s supported in almost every web browser without the need for an external plugin like Flash. But the problem with GIFs is a technical one too: the files can be huge, which can be a big problem, particularly on underpowered mobile devices.

johnny-manziel-zeega-zga-gifSo the team at Zeega has created what they hope will be a more efficient format for short animated images: the ZGA. (Zeega is itself named for Soviet film pioneer Dziga Vertov, so the name has some resonance beyond startup-promotion.) An animated GIF is, in essence, a stack of individual still GIFs all stored in the same file. But GIF as a file format doesn’t compress well, so combining all those GIFs can stack up quickly.

For most large images on the web, we moved from GIF to JPEG long ago — JPEG being much more compressible and featuring much smaller file sizes without too much loss of quality. A ZGA is, essentially, a JPEG filmstrip, with each frame just below its predecessor. Then some JavaScript allows the animation to flow while taking advantage of JPEGs’ smaller file size. “There’s no issue with the way the GIF works as a looping experience,” he said. “But sheer data size is one of the hangups for us.”

You can see a few ZGAs — starring Johnny Manziel, Homer Simpson, a psychedelic fish, and more — on Zeega’s website. Here’s how Shapins described it on Medium (where, for technical reasons, you can’t see the ZGAs actually, um, zig-zag?):

Now, when you upload a GIF to Zeega, on the server side we parse out each individual frame and then create a new, single .jpg image that has each frame one after another, just like a vertical filmstrip. (The media history nerd in me loves how this brings us back to celluloid). This .jpg (what we jokingly call a ZGA for now) is typically 3-5x smaller than the original GIF, making it massively faster to load on cell networks. The framerate is added to the filename and then we use JavaScript to read that information and do the animation on the frontend using CSS3 transitions.

At the moment, the ZGA format only works on Zeega. Shapins said next they’ll need to make it possible to convert GIFs that come from elsewhere on the web like Tumblr or Imgur. One imagines that the technical limits — like requiring some extra JavaScript — will limit the ZGA’s uptake on the broader web. (One of the geniuses of GIFs is that they are self-contained and can be shared as individual units of content — linked in a tweet, embedded in a comments section, emailed to a friend.) But for a publisher who wants to use GIFs a lot but doesn’t like the bandwidth impact, it might be worth including the extra code.

Zeega’s been focused on the visual world since Shapins and his cofounders launched as part of the Knight News Challenge in 2011. The tools created by the company allow anyone, journalists or individual storytellers, the ability to create short multimedia stories through material culled from the web. A video, Flickr images, Soundcloud audio files, GIFs — it’s all fair game. The reason they got interested in finding a better file format was feedback from Zeega users having trouble looking at GIFs on their phones, Shapins said. As mobile takes a greater and greater share of all online attention, a file format that can be laggy or crashy on your phone becomes even more of a problem. “In terms of mobile speed is critical, so getting down the data throughput is important. But the end experience has to be comparable” to a regular GIF, Shapins told me.

Zeega’s not the first media company interested in remaking the GIF. Last year, BuzzFeed introduced its own innovation in GIFs with the “rubbable GIF,” which allows users to control the animation in the image through their mouse, or a finger on mobile. Similar to the ZGA format, rubbable GIFs rely on a bit of JavaScript to make the magic happen, but its focus was on building a usable interface for GIFs (which otherwise do their thing without user input) rather than cutting down the file size. As former BuzzFeed editor Scott Lamb explained to The Atlantic Wire last year, “It’s the code on the webpage that makes them rubbable, not the way the .gifs are made.”

But while all GIFs can be rubbable, not all of them will (look for a “Make rubbable” button). While Rubbing a GIF is not just for special occasions, the editors typically keep them out of serious or sensitive stories. Alice DuBois, BuzzFeed product lead for editorial tools said this over email:

Our awesome dev team built this revolutionary rubbable GIF technology in house so we wanted to roll out this technology for any GIF on the site. Rubbable GIFs work best when they show a specific action or gesture that you want to slow down and look at again and again, like this cute kid berating his dad for dropping a foul ball. Rubbable GIFs could be a inappropriate for sensitive subjects, so the feature is disabled in those posts.

Other publishers, like The New York Times, have created things that look an awful lot like GIFs — the animation, the looping, the autoplay — without actually using GIFs. The GIF-looking animation of the Statue of Liberty at the top of this story, for instance, is revealed in the code as a 15-second movie file in MP4 format. CSS animation and other JavaScript approaches can also do some of the same work a GIF can.

Building a better GIF is an ambitious idea, but browser and platform support loom as big barriers to massive uptake. What places like Zeega and BuzzFeed are trying to do is supplement the GIF experience in ways useful in the controlled environments of their own platforms. That’s a noble goal — but the GIF, short, spastic and imperfect, looks set to endure for some time longer.

POSTED     Sept. 11, 2013, 1:30 p.m.
SHARE THIS STORY
   
Show comments  
Show tags
 
Join the 15,000 who get the freshest future-of-journalism news in our daily email.
Where you get your news depends on where you stand on the issues
A new study by the Pew Research Center examines how Americans’ news consumption habits correlate with where they fall on the political spectrum.
Light everywhere: The California Civic Data Coalition wants to make public datasets easier to crunch
Journalists from rival outlets are pursuing the dream of “pluggable data,” partnering to build open-source tools to analyze California campaign finance and lobbying data.
Ebola Deeply builds on the lessons of single-subject news sites: A news operation with an expiration date
Following the blueprint of Syria Deeply, the new Ebola-focused site hopes to deliver context and coherence in covering the spread and treatment of the virus.
What to read next
1020
tweets
The newsonomics of the millennial moment
The new wave of news startups is aiming at a younger audience. But do legacy media companies have a chance at earning their attention?
803A mixed bag on apps: What The New York Times learned with NYT Opinion and NYT Now
The two apps were part of the paper’s plan to increase digital subscribers through smaller, targeted offerings. Now, with staff cutbacks on the way, one app is being shuttered and the other is being adjusted.
537Watching what happens: The New York Times is making a front-page bet on real-time aggregation
A new homepage feature called “Watching” offers readers a feed of headlines, tweets, and multimedia from around the web.
These stories are our most popular on Twitter over the past 30 days.
See all our most recent pieces ➚
Encyclo is our encyclopedia of the future of news, chronicling the key players in journalism’s evolution.
Here are a few of the entries you’ll find in Encyclo.   Get the full Encyclo ➚
Media Consortium
U.S. News & World Report
Instapaper
Seattle PostGlobe
Gotham Gazette
Tumblr
Slate
National Journal
SeeClickFix
Press+
Wikipedia
El Faro