New York studio Breakfast has created a screen for clothing brand Forever 21 which displays Instagram photographs using over 6,000 spools of thread. The screen is made up of over 200,000 moving parts and took 18 months to build…
Instagram users can watch their selfies recreated in thread form via a live webcam feed at f21threadscreen.com until July 28, and will receive an edited video of their pictures being transformed. The project was commissioned to promote the brand’s back-to-school campaign by encouraging best friends to share pictures of themselves together using the hashtag.
“Forever 21 was looking to experiment with something quite different from what they’ve done in the past,” explains Breakfast creative director Andrew Zolty. “They gave us a rather open brief, and from the start we knew we wanted to build a web-connected experience that anyone could try from anywhere in the world. We focused on thread, with it being the most basic element of fashion and quite versatile. We also focused on Instagram, as it’s the most artistic/creative of the social networks, and Forever 21 has a massive following on there (7.5 million).”
The screen is made up of 200,000 custom built parts, and each spool has a piece of fabric in 36 colours rolled over it like a conveyer belt. The machine is hooked up to a server, which collates images uploaded to Instagram using the hashtag and optimises them for display (images are resized to 80×80 pixels and colour profiles remapped to match the 36-colour palette of the thread).
“The colour remapping process uses an algorithm that measures the distance between two colours in terms of human eye perception,” explains Zolty. “Once we know the colour for each pixel, we can calculate the exact amount of steps each motor needs to travel to get the correct colour to show on the front of the spool. It’s worth noting ‘blue’ on one spool will be a slightly different step to co-ordinate than its neighbour, as the thread belt is stretchy, and each one has a slightly different total length,” he adds.
“From there, we break the image down into 32×4 chunks, due to the way the hardware is laid out, and send out all the information to all 200 modules that make up the screen. The information sent to the modules includes co-ordinates and timing information (for transitions), then finally we send one command off to all the modules to tell them to start moving.”
Breakfast has worked on some inventive social media projects and innovative visual displays in the past – in 2011, it launched Instaprint, a photo booth which prints out Instagram pictures in the style of Polaroids, and in 2012, built a giant flip dot screen to promote new crime show Perception, which was installed in Manhattan and displayed images of people walking past it in real time – but Zolty says the thread screen is the most challenging project it has worked on to date.
“We’ve dealt extensively with interfacing with Instagram with our Instaprint and Instaprint Mosaics products, and we built a mechanical, low resolution display with the electromagnet dot screen, but we’ve never done anything on this kind of scale,” he says. “We’ve designed hundreds of custom parts, with many being manufactured in-house, while the rest were done by about 10 factories from all over the globe. That’s all before we even got into the software and design,” he says.
“We often tell people it would have been easier to design a car from scratch because if a part isn’t acting, you can just make a new one and replace it. On this beast, if a part isn’t acting right, we can’t take every module apart and manufacture and replace 10,0000 of that part. You have to get creative, and the design has to evolve in a smart, efficient way as you run into hurdles.”
One of the biggest challenges was accounting for inconsistency in thread spools and fabric, says Zolty, caused by changes in temperature and humidity levels. “Fabric over a wood spool doesn’t keep the same tension if the room heats up 10º, and so we’ve had to alter the design as we went to keep the fabric from slipping. This is a feature that has to be constantly monitored by the system and engineers to ensure everything is kept optimal.
“The other major hurdle was static electricity,” he adds. “A single module (36 spools) was producing over 20,000 volts of static electricity with our initial grounding plates. That static would run through the motors, the motor leads, then back to the PCB (circuit board) and several times caused them to catch fire. We had to re–engineer how we grounded all the elements, and it now has three redundant systems to ensure all static is dissipated appropriately.”
It’s an impressive piece of hardware, and an innovative way to interact with the brand’s teen audience online.
See the thread screen in action here.