Forever 21’s ‘Thread Screen’ displays Instagram pics using fabric

22 Jul 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

Forever 21 Turns Your Instagram Photos Into Real-time, Real-Life Portraits, In Thread.

It was all I could think as I stared, transfixed, at a giant, analog-screen comprised of 6,400 spools of colored fabric, which were aligning themselves into the simulacrum of an Instagram photo I’d posted moments before.If you thought Forever21 was just about jumping the shark when it came to connecting with millennials, they’re about to make you stick your pedicured foot in your mouth.If you want to see your next selfie brought to life as a real-time mosaic of moving thread, Forever 21 and Breakfast are happy to help—and the results are pretty stunning.

The hulking 13 ft. by 10 ft. display sat on the third floor loft of Breakfast, LLC, a Brooklyn-based design, marketing and engineering firm that built from scratch the one-of-a-kind Instagram screen for its client Forever 21. “It would’ve been a little easier to build a car than to do this,” said Zolty who noted that the project kicked off a few years ago when fashion brand Forever 21, which has over 7.5 million followers on Instagram, asked them to do something that would generate a lot of buzz. But UltraHD screens will never be as cool as this low-res 0.02K display for a simple reason: Instead of using OLED or LED, this screen creates images using motorized belts of multicolored fabric. The fast-fashion giant, known for affordable and unique styles teamed with NY based company Breakfast to bring you probably the coolest thing you’ll see in 2015. But it’s not a digital screen—in fact, the “pixels” on this screen are made entirely out of 1.5 inch-wide thread (ribbon is probably a more apt term) that rotate around to create a fabric tableau. About a year and half ago, the Los Angeles-based clothing retailer hired the Brooklyn agency to build from scratch a giant, digitally synced adjustable billboard made of cloth, wood and aluminum, to name a few materials—the contraption includes some 200,000 parts, with 6.7 miles of fabric.

For Breakfast, that meant building something that tied into Forever 21’s fashion core, but also extended beyond a mere static installation and somehow mirrored the fashion brand’s commanding social media following. Forever 21 has cornered the world of fast-fashion with more then enough gusto to take a breather this year, but they weren’t about to sit back on their heels and let another year with the most technologically advanced generation at the fingertips go by. F21 Thread Screen goes live July 22 and will run 24 hours a day for a week to support the brand’s back-to-school “Tried and True” campaign (which is all about cherishing your best friend).

It once launched a moving blimp, outfitted with Foursquare’s check-in ability, to promote Conan on TBS; after Google launched Voice Search for desktop, Breakfast created a bluetooth-operated open source dev board to accompany the technology. Each “pixel” is actually a 5.5-foot strip of threaded material, each of which can display 36 colors depending on what part of each multicolored strip is showing on the front of the machine. Now, I want you all to picture those billboards in Times Square (I know even the non-New Yorkers can do this) and I want you to focus on the ones that change pixel-by-pixel, bringing a collage of lights together to make one larger picture.

It’s a one-of-a kind screen, which uses, by Zolty’s estimation, 200,000 mostly custom-made pieces to produce 80 by 80 “pixel” recreations of Instagram photos that feature the hashtag #F21threadscreen (Breakfast will moderate the screen so nothing inappropriate shows up). The mechanics alone are wildly inventive, if not borderline insane—6,400 wooden spools feature rainbow ribbons that spin to change among 36 colors, according to computerized directions, with each spool ultimately serving as a single pixel in an 80-by-80 “pixel” image. While the “screen” is comprised of fabric spools, the rest of the display is a staggering array of motors, circuit boards, circuit breakers, wiring and programming. “As a company, we constantly seek innovation and discovery, so it was exciting to align ourselves with an agency that thinks of out-of-the-box ideas,” said Linda Chang, Forever 21 VP of Merchandising, “We thought this was a very forward-thinking project that we wanted to build and bring to life.” Neither Forever 21 nor Breakfast would reveal details on the cost of the project. According to Zolty, they wanted to tie in Forever 21’s Instagram to the project, since with 7 million followers, the retailer has one of the most popular accounts on the platform. “Tools like Instagram really help bring our customers into the lifestyle of the brand.

When you post a picture to your Instagram account and tag it with #F21ThreadScreen, you’ll see a live video stream of your fabric photo come alive at It was one of three ideas presented to the client, he says, and based on early R&D work, they were relatively confident they could actually create the massive screen proposed.

It’s also no stranger to building unique hardware with social media tie-ins—it created Instaprint, an event photo booth business that prints Polaroid-style photos based off Instagram hashtags, and offers to hand-craft bigger mosaics out of the individual prints. Granted, up close it may look more like a Monet abstract, but step back ten feet or so or view it through your iPhone screen and the image resolves itself into a stunning whole. Once your picture is posted and processed, you’ll also get a short video of your shot being converted to thread by adding /[your Instagram handle] to the end of the previous link. When I talked to Andrew Zolty, the co-founder of the products and prototype company Breakfast, his excitement was palpable, even through a phone receiver. “We wanted to create something physical that anyone all over the world can interact with,” he said. After getting the green light from Forever 21, Zolty says things started to move quickly, with the team beginning the process of designing the hundreds of new pieces required to make the screen functional.

Behind the Forever 21 Instagram thread screen is a ton of custom-built wiring, circuitry and boards And behind that are a bunch of fans keeping it all cool. But the F21 machine—11 feet high, 9 feet wide and 3 feet deep, with several times the number of parts in a modern automobile, all custom designed—is its biggest build yet. “If we designed a car, we could redesign a single part and replace it if necessary,” says Zolty. “With this screen, when a part didn’t turn out quite right, we’d be sitting on 10,000-plus of them most often. Originally, Forever 21 wanted the installation to sit inside one of its highly trafficked stores, but the size and weight of the thread screen — as well as the need for it to have Breakfast team members’ eyes on it at all times — made that difficult. Software had to be written to differentiate and best match the varying shades in a photo. “We have three shades of green, but no blue-green,” he says. “So the software tries to figure out the best replacement for it.

First, their system scrapes newly tagged images on Instagram, downsizes each image to 80×80, and then automatically remaps the colors to the machine’s 36-color palette using an algorithm that finds the closest match “in human perception” to each hue. But it works.” The second big challenge was that running the machine changed the temperature of the fabric, causing it to expand and contract as it heats up and cools down. Zolty says that over the course of their prototyping and testing, they discovered that slight variations in temperature and humidity can wreak havoc on the tension of each fabric strip. Simply tag your Instagram photos #f21threadscreen (you’re Instagram will need to be public), it’ll be put up into a queue, and then transferred to the machine. “Everything goes through moderation,” Zolty laughed. “We’ve learned from that in the past”.

The massive “screen” is fed from a server that functions as the home base for all these photos, basically a giant hard drive where people’s photos are being held. The server, which is held below the screen, chooses the photos and then tells the motors that control the thread spools which color to stop moving on.

After measuring the voltage, he says they realized the spinning fabric rubbing against the wooden spools was causing nearly 20,000 volts of static electricity (for comparison, a Taser usually delivers a 1,200 volt shock), despite being well grounded—so they had to triple ground each spool to cut down on the electricity. “[Static] is something we anticipated, but not to the extent that it ended up presenting itself,” he says. We had to reengineer how we grounded the entire screen, and now it has three redundant systems to ensure all static is dissipated.” All those spools don’t move fast enough to support full-color video at a decent frame rate, but the team has had some luck making it display animated GIFs in black and white. In particular, the all-important five-foot fabric loops, which have to run continuously on the system without slipping, breaking or gumming up the system. The machine will be housed at the Breakfast studios in Brooklyn, with a 24-hour live feed on it from July 22-28 so that anyone, anywhere can see the screen and watch as Instagram photos from around the world get created, spool by spool. “Ninety nine percent of the people that interact with this will never see it in person,” Zolty said. “So we want to make it the best experience.” You can watch the live stream right here. When Zolty explained all of this to me, my first thought was that I wanted to test it out, so he took a photo from my LinkedIn profile and put it through the machine.

There is a huge window of opportunity for fashion brands and retailers to tap into the psyche of the ever-changing millennial hive mentality, especially when it comes to social media, and this is one idea that I think could trump any other attempts. Breakfast’s live Instagram display is under the ever-watchful eye of engineers and programmers, always ready to fix an malfunctioning spool and ensuring that it’s accurately representing the original Instagram pictures. It’s a shame, really, that this impressive engineering feat won’t be seen by most people except through another screen, because seeing it in person really is the point.

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