The F21 Thread Screen has a resolution of just 80 pixels by 80 pixels, and in order to get that measly resolution, it uses 6,400 spools, nearly seven miles of fabric, and thousands of motors and gears. 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.
Each ribbon of material loops back and forth inside the machine like an amusement-park line. That keeps the machine relatively shallow—it measures 3.3 feet deep despite all that material behind the scenes. Largely made of milled aluminum, its 11-foot-tall and 9-foot-wide body literally weighs a ton.
For the next week—today through July 28—you’ll be able to see your own Instagram shots on the giant screen of spools. 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 F21Threadscreen.com. 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.
Andrew Zolty, co-founder and chief creative officer of rapid-prototyping creative agency BREAKFAST, says the project started a year and a half ago for client Forever 21. BREAKFAST presented a few concepts for the project, but the team and Forever 21 both liked the thread-screen idea best.
“We knew we wanted to build a Web-connected experience that anyone could try from anywhere in the world,” Zolty says. “We focused on thread with it being the most basic element of fashion. We also focused on Instagram, as it’s the most artistic/creative of social networks, and Forever 21 has a massive following on there (7.4 million followers). The majority of the initial build and assembly occurred over the first 6-7 months, with the rest of the time being a lot of optimization, testing, learning, and fine-tuning.”
While the materials that create the colors in each pixel are as analog as can be, there’s a lot of complex technology working behind the scenes to make it happen.
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. That’s when the wheels start spinning.
“Once we know the color for each pixel, we can calculate the exact amount of steps each motor needs to travel to get the correct color to show on the front of the spool,” Zolty explains. “Blue on one spool will be a slightly different step coordinate than its neighbor, since the thread is stretchy and each one has a slightly different total length.”
Running a bunch of fabric conveyor belts to make images may seem relatively straightforward, but there are some simple things that could throw a wrench into the entire operation. 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. There are engineers constantly monitoring the system to make sure everything is the proper temperature.
That wasn’t the only challenge the team faced in building this behemoth. There are more than 200,000 custom-built parts for the Thread Screen, and each of them went through several iterations before they were finalized. And over the course of the testing, the team had to put out a few fires—literally.
“The other major hurdle was static electricity,” Zolty says. “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 often cause it to catch fire. 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. Zolty shared this demo video of their duotone tests.
For the time being, there are no plans for the F21 Thread Screen to leave the BREAKFAST offices in Brooklyn, where the live video feeds of the Instagram recreations originate. According to Zolty, the machine is built to be moved, but it’s also very complex and needs to be babysat by engineers. He says that after the Forever 21 Instagram showcase runs through this week, the team will discuss whether they can take its show on the road. For now, he says they’re open to having visitors drop by the BREAKFAST offices to check out the Thread Screen in person—as long as they make an appointment ahead of time.