Prototyping the F21 Thread Screen

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New York City-based creative agency and rapid-prototyping house BREAKFAST wears many hats marrying advertising, art, graphic design, industrial design and rapid product and prototype production. “We are a unique group with a massively diverse set of skills…as good at engineering as we are at design and ideation,” the company writes. “Every employee at BREAKFAST is hands on and have a variety of expertise. We do the work ourselves, and we keep our team small.” BREAKFAST lives life in the maker culture fast lane, creating connected devices that are born in technology but exhibit the two primary characteristics embodied in good works of art—timelessness and contemporary relevance.

When clothing retailer Forever 21 wanted a fun technological attraction to connect with their fans around the world, BREAKFAST came up with a massive 11-foot-tall, 2,000-pound monitor to display Instagram shots carrying a “#f21threadscreen” hashtag. The kicker is that the “pixels” are actually multicolored conveyor belts that, when viewed from the front, resemble several thousand spools of thread.

The F21 Screen has over 200,000 custom made parts, including 6,400 specially made, rotating thread spools over which multiple 5½ foot strips of colored fabric rotate; 6.7 miles of fabric set in motion by motors controlled by in-house programmed, designed and manufactured circuitry. What could go wrong?

“This was the first set of modules we put on the superstructure. We purposely wanted to build one column to full height to ensure no unexpected problems arose.” Zolty, BREAKFAST Creative Director.

The real story behind BREAKFAST’s F21 Thread Screen is one of hard work, experimentation and resiliency in the face of initial failure. Starting with a brief from the retail giant Forever 21 to “do something different,” BREAKFAST almost immediately decided to leverage Forever 21’s 7.5 million Instagram followers. The #F21ThreadScreen tags are automatically captured, put into a cue and optimized for the 80×80 resolution of the F21 Thread Screen. Then each spool’s motor drives the colored fabric band over multiple spools, stopping at the appropriate color/pixel position in the display.

“First PCB to be put together. Most of the components are so tiny that a microscope is required to check if it’s been built correctly. There are 200 modules on the screen, each with one of these boards on the back controlling the 36 motors in each module.”
“This is an early part of the assembly for the rail that holds the breaker and distribution of where the power comes into the machine.” Zolty, BREAKFAST Creative Director.
“This is an accelerated life test machine that we built to see how much wear the fabric belts would be able to take. We simulated many months of wear and stress upon the fabric to ensure they wouldn’t fray, lose color, lose their stitches, etc…” 

The decision to integrate the basic building blocks of fashion, thread and fabric, was an organic one. On an interview with Core77, Andrew Zolty, BREAKFAST Co-Founder and Creative Director says, “I don’t think there is a single part that didn’t go through several iterations.” The fact that fabric is a versatile material was an added benefit and was probably the easiest decision made during the process. The F21 Thread Screen required innumerable mechanical and technology decisions, most of which required prototyping to find the optimal solution. 

BREAKFAST prototyped multiple fabrics, using various color printing techniques and elastic fabric combinations to find the perfect mix of surface color and fabric tension. It was apparent quite early on that these were necessary traits since the fabric had to rotate around thread spool bodies at high speeds while retaining mechanical and color integrity. BREAKFAST built test rigs to assess how the fabric would perform over time. They also 3D printed and CNC milled parts before having them injection molded or laser cut to find the best shape and structures.

“We had major problems with static. This is what would happen to the board when the static wasn’t getting dissipated correctly. It often would have a foot tall flame that would shoot out it.” Zolty, BREAKFAST Creative Director.

Nature does not make exceptions for hard work and the creation of the F21 Thread Screen was a process of testing the laws of nature. Principle among them was static electricity. The Thread Screen comprises multiple modules, and a single module has 36 rapidly rotating spools. Operating them was regularly producing over 20,000 volts of static electricity. The initial grounding system proved to be insufficient. The static would run through the motors, the motor leads, then back to the circuit boards often causing some of the boards to catch fire. The reengineered grounding system now has three redundant systems to ensure all static is properly dissipated.

“This is actually a sad picture. This is a first batch of fabric belts we received. The reason it’s sad is if you notice, not a single two are the same length. They were all suppose to be exactly the same within 3 millimeters.” Zolty, BREAKFAST Creative Director.

However, one of the biggest hurdles BREAKFAST encountered was the inconsistency in the quality of parts, and their frustrating propensity to change size and shape in response to heat and/or humidity. BREAKFAST found that fabric turning over a wood spool won’t keep proper tension if the room heats up just 10 degrees . Despite encountering many challenges during the development of the F21 Thread Screen wall, the final result is mesmerizing, demonstrating that persistence remains an essential ingredient in creating design and technology solutions that resonate.””

“This is a day or two before launch. Mattias Gunneras (co-founder and CTO) is trying to tweak our in-sequence homing to be as full-proof as possible. The in-sequence homing occurs in between each users’ photo where the machine looks for a reflective strip on each fabric belt to ensure it’s in the position it should be, or adjusts it if not.” Zolty, BREAKFAST Creative Director.

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