There’s something axiomatic in our need to take what was once analog, make it digital and then make it analog again. 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.
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.
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.
The result, a so-called “thread screen,” took a year-and-a-half to build. 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). 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.
Watching it create an image is an experience in and of itself. As each physical picture adjusts, the entire screen appears in flux (there are a number of canned and configurable screen animations). Within seconds, the screen resolves itself into a recreation of the original Instagram photo. 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.
What’s more astounding, though, is how the thing works.
Each “pixel” is actually a five foot loop of poly blend fabric printed with the exact same set of 36 Pantone colors added to it through a dye sublimation process. Each roughly 1-inch-wide loop runs around a set of cams, including custom-printed wooden spools near the front. The system rolls the fabric spool until the display shows the right color for that pixel. Every loop has a little bit of reflective material sewn onto it. That, in combination with each loop system’s infrared camera, helps the display system know where each color is on the loop and what color is visible on the front of the display (what shows as a “pixel”).
Nothing is easy
Zolty gave me a brief tour of the loft space where they hand-crafted the Forever 21 screen and where it will live for the duration of this marketing campaign. From July 22 to July 28, anyone in the world with access to Instagram and the Web will be able to see their hashtagged Instagram recreations via a dedicated, streaming YouTube page and even receive videos of the display creating their images.
We walked over to a corner of the office where Zolty pointed out a cardboard box of unused wooden spools. He encouraged me to take one for myself. Then I noticed the word “Bad” hand-printed on the box.
“This is why it took so long. Every part came in different,” said Zolty. In fact, the Breakfast team often had to retrofit seemingly complete parts. 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.
Near the discarded box of spools, I found Shelby Shaw, a sometime office assistant who is often asked to pitch in on various Breakfast projects. On this day, she was carefully sewing loops. The original ones came in printed well-enough, but were not properly calibrated for tightness on the spools. Now Shaw sewed the loops together herself and then ironed on a super-thin material to, basically, mask the seam.
Shaw noted that she had sewn nearly 500 loops since May. I asked her if she knew how to sew. “Sure, I had classes in the fifth grade — and it call came flooding back,” she said, smiling.
In front of the display sits a 1080p video camera that’s broadcasting the Forever 21 display’s activities and a small webcam that helps the programmers and technicians, who are parked in front of the display, monitor its health.
When a fabric pixel goes out of alignment, they can use the web image and on-screen grid to figure out exactly which one it is and then programmatically reset it.
Sometimes, the team swaps out a whole 16 x 4 spool module. They have 10 backups, which they are constantly refurbishing.
The whole time I was at Breakfast, I heard the steady hum of hidden fans. It wasn’t until Zolty took me behind the screen that I discovered the source: More than half a dozen fans, all pointed at the back of the display, which generates and impressive amount of heat that you can feel coming off it in waves.
It’s one of the reasons that the 2,000 lb. display is not going to a nearby Forever 21 store, even though Forever 21’s Chang calls it “beautiful looking.” It simply gets too hot. Plus, the whole thing needs to prodigiously grounded to avoid fire, not just from the heat, but the impressive amount of static electricity the system of spools and rolling fabric creates. Without that grounding, it would surely go up in flames.
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. It’s a massive, awe-inspiring analog recreation of one of our favorite social media pursuits. Perhaps, someday, when Forever 21 is done with it, the Instagram thread screen will end up in the MoMa, where it surely belongs.