How GIFs can be the best answer for content on Smart Watches

Exploring the news value of an animated GIF in the age of wearables


The animated GIF image-type gained a lot of popularity in recent years. We can see it almost everywhere around the web. From Reddit to modern news sites like BuzzFeed. Although it dates back to the early days of Internet in 1987, GIFs have matured. In today’s modern internet culture, GIFs are extremely popular among casual audiences, publishers and artists.

One of the most remarkable effects of GIF images is creating what can be called an “online cultural phenomenon.” ReactionGIFs for example are very popular in message forums, blog posts and almost all corners of the internet. Little looping clips that last no more than a few seconds, usually used to express a reaction to something read, heard or seen in a funny way. These reactions play a major role in a new content type that serves web surfers who enjoy light, humorous content.

The real question now is if GIFs can be a solution in the news world.

GIFs, Content and Wearables

Of course, using GIFs in the news world is not new. News sites are actually using them in many cases as hero images for their articles or in an entertaining listicle. It helps in entertainment, giving some context, a bit artistic and gives a new feel for the story. However, it’s still missing something. Eventually, it’s just an image that works mostly as a reaction.

What if it was a trigger?

We’ve been looking around for a new medium that gives animated images a whole new purpose, and luckily we found one. As Smart Watches are going to gain high adoption rates in the next few years, they’ll represent a medium for that trigger.

At the same time, they’re a real challenge for content producers, from screen size to phone dependency.

Displaying single sentence news stories is a nice try but we’re not sure about its negative effects. Is reading one-sentence headlines enough? Is it informative? Can’t Twitter app already display these headlines? Why are we giving this impression?

A medium should never dictate how we produce content. It either doesn’t work, or we’re using it wrong.

In a great post, Luke Wroblewski summarizes the real value and actual possible use of smartwatches.

Software designed for our wrists works best as timely, glanceable information. As Google’s wearables team articulated at Google I/O last year: “Phones often distract us and take us out of the World. Wearables provide much more compact experiences that are as short as possible and as fast as possible.” Think actions, not apps.”

For this particular reason, our approach is exactly about that. There’s no need for an interface.

Instead, we’re combining good GIFs and the glance value of the watch for a new type of notification. An animated notification. A trigger for content, real consumption.

Erdogan meets Rouhani amid deepening Yemen crisis. Both GIFs can be used to link to the same story but each one sends a different message (Al Jazeera)

Our app will intelligently (still working on the algorithm) push interesting and valuable content throughout the day. Each item will be represented with an animated GIF. Tapping on it will open the item on your phone browser or you can save it for later.


We decided to break up the development into multiple levels and make the process as agile as possible.

Moving Headlines

Version 01: Basic Display & Interaction

How to smoothly display GIFs on Android Wear

Since we wanted to display gif on a smartwatch, we had to overcome few limitations on Android Wear :

  • ImageView, the UI control used in most android apps to display images doesn’t support GIFs by default.
  • The gif size differs from one watch to another. In our experiment, we used LG G Watch, 280*280 HDPI screen density.
  • Default notifications on Android Wear are limited to: Image, text and actions. We had to create our own notification-like app. The advantage here is that you can customize your notification and impose your own rules.

We’re still going through the process and we believe it can be optimized more.

As an Android watch is our only option, we’re still exploring the same feature for Apple Watch which is not very GIF-friendly either.

Tools and Libraries

Dev tools

  • Android Studio 1.1.0 with SDK 21

Third party libraries

  • Google play services : to handle communication between the phone and the watch.
  • Parse SDK 1.9.1: to store/fetch the stories we push from/to phone and watch.
  • GifDecoder library to play gifs in the watch.

Version 02: The Algorithm

What really matters?

We’re currently researching the best algorithm we can apply to send frequent content during the day. Notifications on a wrist device can be incredibly annoying, frustrating and might defeat the whole purpose.

Checkout Steven Levy’s great post about this topic: The Age of Notifications

We need a great artificial intelligence effort to comb through our information, assess the urgency and relevance, and use a deep knowledge of who we are and what we think is important to deliver the right notifications at the right time.
As time goes on, we will trust such a system to effectively filter all our information and dole it out just as needed. (Of course, that system will be able to assess each notification for its appropriateness on a given device.
A laptop computer will have a relatively low bar; a phone will require more stringent criteria. As with Seinfeld’s Elaine and her sponge, only the really crucial stuff will be determined watch-worthy.)

Luckily our case might not be as complicated as Elaine’s sponge ☺ but it’s extremely valuable that we come up with a good “notification frequency” metric to achieve maximum engagement with our content.

Here’s what we’re considering for Version 02:

  • Time of the day & content: What to push and at what time? Types of content include : news stories, news clips, features, opinions, long reads, full episodes.
  • Frequency: As a start, the app will send a single notification on hourly basis. As this frequency might be a bit intrusive itself, it’s a good start. We’ll make sure to adjust the algorithm for better time calculations.
  • Popularity: Can be a good asset in recommendations. We’ll be calculating popularity based on social media sharing, engagement on each story (comments), and most viewed items as a start.

As we’re still going through the process, all ideas are welcome. Just drop us an email or add your comments here.

Learnings from the first version

  1. Wearables are definitely not consumption devices. We’re not even sure about the most suitable content type for these devices.
  2. Although smartwatches in general are far from being a mainstream content medium, glance is the most important feature is this wearable device. We think capitalizing on this feature is key to success.
  3. A smartwatch is not a device that can free you from your phone, it will always be a companion device regardless of its features.
  4. Screen size is a major interaction obstacle, that’s why the future might be in an advanced headset device; think of Moto Hint on steroids after fitting a computer in it.

Learnings will be frequently updated based on our progress.

Drop us an email if you have an idea or suggestion. The first prototype is available for free under the MIT License.

Al Jazeera Innovation & Research Experiments are a series of prototypes to explore the future of media. We aim to dig deeper beyond code & design and extract the human potential from gadgets, screens and APIs. Researching the methods, concepts and philosophies that drive media and storytelling forward. Our exploration aims to push the industry while keeping the human perspective.