Coolest Agency Product of the Day: This Reactive, Ready-to-Use, Modular Kinetic Display

Breakfast turns an old project into a new product

The inventors at Breakfast have been busy, and their newest toy is ready for market.

The Brooklyn-based agency and product design shop—once described as a team of "hardware hackers"—today is launching a flexible, standalone version of its electromagnetic dot-based billboard. The "Flip-Disc Display System" is a literally titled out-of-the-box approach to kinetic signage, made of modular panels that can recreate images, video, text and more, all fed to it via an accompanying app.

A demo video shows some of the possible applications. You might feature an inspirational Neil deGrasse Tyson tweet, or watch a perfectly moody monochromatic video of the White Stripes, or even play a large-scale game of Space Invaders.

The design also includes an interactive component that responds to the movements of people passing in front of an attached 3-D camera. So, a man waving his arms might send the logo on the screen scattering as his silhouette passes across it. (Don't worry—it reforms once the intruder is gone).

It may seem familiar. Back in 2012, Breakfast created a similar design to help TNT promote a crime drama. But the new display, which the shop built from scratch as an off-the-shelf offering, differs in a number of ways, including, importantly, its adjustable build. Each display is actually composed of a number of 17-by-17-inch square panels that snap together, and can be arranged into a larger sign—32 of them could make an 11-by-5.5-foot rectangle, or a 17-inch-by-45-foot row (perhaps, say, if you wanted to track a consumer down a long airport walkway).

Other notable details on how it works: Each panel includes 784 half-inch plastic discs—essentially analog pixels—that flip between two differently colored sides to create the overall picture. The image renders at close to 30 frames-per-second. It's essentially a massively souped up version of the 1960s-era technology used in the destination displays on buses, preceding LED-based signs.

It's also intended to be easy to use, the idea being, Breakfast says, that anyone—not just programmers or designers or engineers—can beam or schedule information or images using the controller app.

Breakfast plans to ship the units starting in the spring. It's not the shop's first foray into developing its own intellectual property by merging software and hardware (a specialty it's also put to work for clients like Forever 21 and MLB). But it is perhaps its biggest.

Check out a Q&A below with chief creative officer Andrew Zolty for more about the company's shift away from a for-hire agency model toward selling its own IP, as well as the possible applications of the new flip-disc system for brands, and an update on Breakfast's other products.

AdFreak: Historically, you've done a lot of work-for-hire, building custom software-hardware combinations for brand partners. What are your goals for your business model in launching this flip-disc display as an out-of-the-box product?

Andrew Zolty: We've built some pretty amazing products, only for them to end up collecting dust after a few days of being out in the world. It's a waste of time, money, effort and technology.

The Flip-Disc Display perfectly illustrates the point. We created the first-ever super-speed and real-time flip-disc display four years ago with TNT. It got an amazing response, and ever since, brands have been reaching out for us to make them one. The first display simply wasn't designed to scale, and the business model wouldn't have worked. For years, though, we knew if we could redesign the system from scratch we could solve all those problems, and give the world a new piece of technology. That's what we're announcing here today.

In fact, this product started, at least partly, as a project for TNT, promoting one of the network's shows. Usually, brands end up owning the IP associated with their campaigns, even if those ideas were developed by an agency. How did you extricate your tech from that deal, to allow you to develop and market it as your own product?

For that screen, we used raw, off-the-shelf flip-disc modules. That's analogous to an agency doing an experience on LED screens. The client can't own the IP behind the LED screens, but perhaps the code/content that goes on them.

The system we're launching today is a completely new beast that we've designed and are manufacturing from scratch. The novelty is the modular F1 panel design, which allows brands to snap together whatever number of panels they want into whatever configuration they'd like, without the need for months of engineers and developers. We've also completely revamped the tech under the hood, designing all the driver and controller PCBs (circuit boards) from the ground up, giving us lower latency, and a refresh rate of four times our original display.

What are some of the the ways you see brands and agencies using this going forward?

We hear constantly from brands and agencies looking for a piece of tech that's "innovative" and "attention getting." A wall of LED screens doesn't do it anymore. For years, we've watched people from all walks of life become giddy and mesmerized when we turn on the display we have in our office. We see brands installing these across their brick-and-mortar establishments, from stores to airports.

You've developed other tech IP of your own—namely, Points, the internet-connected street sign that won you an Innovation Lion at Cannes, and Luster (formerly Instaprint), which offers Instagram mosaic screens and Instagram photo printers for events. Where are those products in their life cycles? How are they being used by clients, and how do they relate to your plans for the Flip-Disc screen, and your broader goals for your business?

​Luster was the first invention we decided to productize, and it has since grown to become a global company with locations across four continents.​ Points is perhaps our most-sought-after product, but is also the most complex. It requires a great deal of design and manufacturing work to bring it market, and we're currently searching for potential partners looking to take on the challenge. That would allow us to keep inventing, rather than being bogged down with the "productizing."

Are there any other companies in the marketplace you'd point to as inspiration or a blueprint for the type of business you want to run, or are you trying to create something new? A mashup of other models you've seen?

For a long time we've tried to find companies attempting a model similar to what we're attempting, and have generally come up empty. The closest we've found is Betaworks, who have internally incubated companies like Dots, Giphy, bitly, etc. That said, we general feel that we have to pave our own path. That's the added fun—and overhead—of hardware.

Last, but most important, can you actually play Space Invaders out of the box, or was that a special build?

The intro title sequence was from a video, but the gameplay was a real game. We created a bunch of quick apps in [programming tools] Processing and Openframeworks to show what you can do. It's worth noting that we adapted a version of the game and were playing it on the screen in about 20 minutes.