Vintage 3D 'wiggle GIFs' respun with library's cool tool

In its push to reinvent itself in the Web era, the New York Public Library releases the Stereogranimator, a tool that lets users create flickering 3D GIFs from its archive of "stereographs."

Edward Moyer Senior Editor
Edward Moyer is a senior editor at CNET and a many-year veteran of the writing and editing world. He enjoys taking sentences apart and putting them back together. He also likes making them from scratch. ¶ For nearly a quarter of a century, he's edited and written stories about various aspects of the technology world, from the US National Security Agency's controversial spying techniques to historic NASA space missions to 3D-printed works of fine art. Before that, he wrote about movies, musicians, artists and subcultures.
  • Ed was a member of the CNET crew that won a National Magazine Award from the American Society of Magazine Editors for general excellence online. He's also edited pieces that've nabbed prizes from the Society of Professional Journalists and others.
Edward Moyer
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Enlarge Image
A detail of the Stereogranimator's interface, showing a stereograph from the New York Public Library's collection (in this case, an image of Chinese laborers picking cotton in Peru, circa 1900). The user adjusts the position of the images to create a 3D GIF. (You can see the result below.) Screenshot by Edward Moyer/CNET

Some readers may remember the flickering, old-timey, surprisingly three-dimensional GIFs that made a splash on the Internet back in 2008. Writer and artist Joshua Heineman created them from images of 19th and early 20th century stereoscope cards he culled from a collection placed online by the New York Public Library.

Heineman took the two slightly offset images on a given card, separated them, dropped them into Photoshop, and created animated GIFs that quickly "flipped" from one image to the other, over and over (a technique known as "wiggle stereoscopy").

Then, as part of a personal project called "Reaching for the Out of Reach," he posted the GIFs on his Tumblr blog, where they were discovered by the blogosphere and spread far and wide.

Now -- thanks to that online fame, and to the New York Public Library's push to reinvent itself in the Internet Age -- you too can breathe new three-dimensional life into these stereoscopic artifacts.

The NYPL launched its "Stereogranimator" this week (with Heineman providing an interesting introduction). The tool is designed to let users step into Heineman's shoes, sift through the library's archive of historic stereoscope cards (or "stereographs"), and use them to create wiggle GIFs and 3D anaglyphs of their own. (You all know anaglyphs from the adventures you've had with red-and-blue-lensed glasses.) The results can then be shared by way of an embed code, a link to the tool's Web site, or buttons associated with various social-media sites.

It's another example of an effort by a cultural institution to engage a younger audience -- and use Web-era technology to explore new territory. (Orchestras and theater companies, for instance, have set aside "tweet seats" that let the groups interact with Twitter-using audience members and provide real-time annotations to performances.)

The NYPL and its NYPL Labs have taken vigorous strides into this realm, producing iPad apps and crowdsourcing projects, and even inviting game designer Jane McGonigal to create a game that had 500 players spending the night in the stacks in search of artifacts from the library's collections.

In this image of the interface, the preview pane is visible to the right of the stereograph. Screenshot by Edward Moyer/CNET

The Stereogranimator is the latest NYPL Labs project, and it's an innovative way to draw a new generation toward the library's holdings and encourage people to use those holdings creatively. It's a little like a game itself: you have to fiddle with your chosen stereograph to get good results with your wiggle GIF or anaglyph (a preview pane lets you gauge your adjustments while you work).

Users, though, might need to be a little patient. During my several brief sessions with the tool, many of the same stereographs kept popping up, despite the fact that there are supposedly more than 40,000 to choose from. Also, judging from Heineman's original project, the cards that did appear weren't necessarily the most compelling in the library's archive, or the ones that best lend themselves to a 3D effect. Perhaps some categories or tags -- people, animals, landscapes, streetscapes -- would be nice. (That might require a lot of work on the library's part, but it could be baked in as a crowdsourced effort, which would add that much more value to the project.)

There were some mildly frustrating interface issues too. When I clicked away from one batch of cards, for instance, I couldn't go back if I changed my mind (at least I couldn't figure out how to do so). The ability to save individual cards for possible use could be handy.

In any case, one would expect some wrinkles to be smoothed as the NYPL Labs team receives feedback and makes adjustments.

And nitpicks aside, the library's experimentation and outreach efforts are admirable (and impressive), and perhaps -- in this day and age -- essential.

Give the Stereogranimator a spin (or a wiggle) and use our comments section below to share your, um, perspective on the effort.