How We Did It: GIF Dance Party

Coding the Internet's best party

February 4, 2016
Reading Time
4 minutes

I remember my first introduction to the web back in the mid ’90s. It was a place of mad discovery. There was a great deal of uncertainty when clicking a link—where you would end and up and what you would see. The Internet was not a serious place. It was more of a playground, full of unexpected moments.

Over the last three years I have been creating interactive experiences that bring some of these unexpected moments back to the Internet by putting emphasis on smiles and little else. No clients, no social media sharing, no analytics, no SEO, no log-in, no users, no brand, and no monetary objectives—smiles have become my motivation and my currency. Late at night, I stare intensely into my glowing rectangle, firing code into it, and imagining how I might turn the drab, emotionless faces of everyday, seen-it-all web surfers into expressions of delight.

While there are a number of projects on my site Fuzzy Wobble Dot Com that exist in the “smiles-as-currency” domain, I am going to share one of my favorites with you today: GIF DANCE PARTY. The name should give you a hint as to where this is headed…

The animated GIF was invented in the late ’80s, but when GIF DANCE PARTY began back in 2012, they were still primarily used in blinking web banners for sleazy ad campaigns. Tumblr was the only mainstream site at the time with a GIF vernacular. However, my fascination with both Tumblr and animated GIFs was surging at this time, and I could sense that there was an opportunity to bring animated GIFs out of the depths of Tumblr and into a more familiar context. This idea lead to an eight-hour coding session that resulted in the first release of the GIF DANCE PARTY website, which allowed visitors to create and share their own digital dance parties. Despite my sub-mediocre coding skills at the time, the site was surprisingly functional. As with damn near everything in web dev, all the integral parts of the site had been executed thousands of times before, and with a little Googlin’ and digital glue, the concept was realized. The code base was solid, although a serious problem remained: Transparent GIFs were extremely rare, never mind transparent dance GIFs, which were imperative to the concept. After many web searches, I found only four—not enough for a respectable digital dance party by any online standards.

So I asked my friends to help me with the tedious process of removing the backgrounds from GIF dancers, pixel by pixel, frame by frame, to generate the collection of transparent dancers featured in the first GIF DANCE PARTY release. Now, three years later, the GIF DANCE PARTY website has amassed an arsenal of more than 120 iconic dancers. 

Over the years, GIF DANCE PARTY received millions of hits from around the world. The captivating nature of the animated GIF, injected into a familiar party context, touched the Internet in all the right places. I even had a collection of dancing cats in there for good measure. Today, GIF DANCE PARTY continues to make the rounds. On November 2, 2015 it made it to the front page of Reddit again, where one user commented:

The project was quite well received by my colleagues at IDEO, so we decided to set up a green screen and make our very own IDEO Boston GIF Dance Party.

It was extremely rewarding to maximize the smile-to-effort ratio with a project that could have so easily been discredited as “silly” had I not been surrounded by such creative and supportive people.

But the unfortunate outcome of this, a project that stemmed from a drive to create smiles, was that I could never see any of those smiles. #SesameStreetProblems. At one point I considered turning on users’ webcams to use face detection and count the smiles, replacing the Facebook “like” widget with a smile counter (pretty sure this would have deterred a number of visitors). The only way to witness these smiles was to create an IRL experience—A GIF DANCE PARTY installation. With the use of projectors, 3D cameras, and countless lines of code, we would be able to digitize partygoers into dance GIFs. These dance GIFs could become part of a wild and dynamic visual spectacle, projected for all to see. Together, the GIF DANCE PARTY VJ and partygoers would work together to create an otherworldly GIF DANCE PARTY digital dance floor.

There was no chance my Googlin’-and-digital-glue approach was going to work on a project of this scale. I put out a call for creative coders, which was answered by an exceptional team: Matt F., Wes T.Joe S., and Matt G. For many, many Saturdays, we met in hungover or otherwise compromised states and managed to stab away at the massive challenge of bringing GIF DANCE PARTY to an installation space with C++ and OpenFrameworks. Six months later:


We had a hit installation. We started booking frequent gigs. Jaws were dropping. What started off as not much more than a “cool art installation” evolved into a project that had a massive positive impact on partygoers. As we observed: This is the evolution of the photo booth. We have tapped into the selfie-lust habits of the modern day partygoer. But unlike the conventional photo booth experience, we went hyper dynamic, we went hyper visual, and for the first time in photo booth history, we introduced selflessness to the selfie. An experience for you, and an experience for all.

@ the GIF DANCE PARTY capture booth

Partygoers were able to interact with the party environment in a way that was unprecedented. While traditional photo booths disconnect partygoers from the environment, our experience blasted them right into the center of it, no different than installing a Slip’N Slide down the middle of the dance floor.

As a team of artists, coders, and designers, we continue to experiment and evolve the experience. Recently we created an online experience to ensure the party lives on long after final call, by exporting all the dancers from that event to a GIF DANCE PARTY website, as we did with the holiday party in the video above. Go to the website, create a party, and easily share it online.

From website to installation, GIF DANCE PARTY has been a delightful project, not just for the users and participants but also for the creators. Smiles all around, and more to come. Thank you sincerely for this great opportunity to share my work with the brilliant IDEO Labs community.