Christina Wolfgram
Updated Jul 22, 2015 @ 1:56 pm

Sometimes, it’s easy to take Instagram for granted. The app makes photo-sharing so simple that the hardest part of sending a selfie out into the World Wide Web is picking a filter. But what goes on inside the brain of a Smartphone when you post a pic? There are thousands of tiny choices being made: what color pixel best reflects the greens and yellows in your cat’s eyes, how many of those pixels should be included, what kind of shape they should form.

Forever 21 teamed up with designers at Breakfast LLC in New York to create an epic way reveal all the complicated moving pieces behind a regular ol’ Instagram post: It’s a machine that uses fabric to recreate photos, and it’s incredible. According to Mashable, the device stands at 13 ft. x 10 ft. with a “thread screen” made up of 6,400 spools of colorful ribbons acting as pixels. Complete with over 2,000 parts (that’s about eight times as many parts in a car by the way), including circuit boards and breakers, a bunch of motors, and a ton of wiring, the screen displays any photos featuring the hashtag #F21threadscreen. Pranksters beware, though, the folks at Breakfast are keeping an eye out for inappropriate stuff.

Seriously, this contraption is nuts. You can watch it in action on Forever 21’s live feed, where the display changes in real time. Weirdly enough, seeing the thread screen do its thang makes the effort look easy, almost like a jumbo-tron at a basketball game. The science behind it, though, is anything but easy.

The entire mechanism took a year-and-a-half to build. Each “pixel” is made up of a five-foot loop of fabric, handmade and dyed with an exact blend of 36 Pantone colors. Each spool has to be identical so that when the program determines which color needs to be displayed, the fabric can be turned to show the right shade. The system is complicated — with so many moving parts, the fabric can get bunched up or out of place. The Breakfast squad has been regularly switching out groups of spools so they can refurbish them and keep the machine running smoothly. Sounds this puppy requires a lot of work and an extreme attention to detail.

Weighing in at 2,000 lbs, this machine lives in Brooklyn. Though Forever 21 technically owns it, the huge screen could never be used in a store because it gets dangerously hot. Plus, with all that fabric whirring around, a crazy amount of static electricity is created by the minute, which means the machine has to be grounded or it will burst into flames — kind of like when you rub your socks on the carpet and touch something only times 10,000.

The amazing display is absolutely worth all the hassle. Photos posted between July 22 and July 28 and hashtagged with #F21threadscreen will be transformed by this giant art-machine and included on the live feed. For more on the mind-blowing science behind the thread screen, check out this sweet behind the scenes video.


(Images via here, here, and here.)