By Richard Kaufman
Have you heard of the optical illusion The Ambiguous Arrow? It makes your head hurt. Learn more about the background here.
Here’s a video that demonstrates it and also reveals its workings.
And here’s a video by Matt Pritchard that explains how you can make your own Ambiguous Arrow with the cardboard tube from a roll of toilet paper.
When Tristan Duke talked to Jack White about putting a hologram on a record, Duke told him that there wasn’t a guarantee it could be done. Record engineers were also telling Duke that it wouldn’t work.
“Though I wasn’t sure and I couldn’t guarantee, I had an intuitive feeling…I was pretty sure it was going to work, but it was untested,” Duke says.
Turns out, it could be done. Duke was right. Holograms on vinyl records are indeed possible.
Duke—founder of Infinity Light Science—worked with White, and then went on to do subsequent albums including Rush’s 2112, Star Wars: The Force Awakens, and the Star Wars: A New Hope 40th Anniversary Box Set. And as for Duke himself, he graduated from Naropa University in 2008, and following graduation taught photography at the school.
“I think, I increasingly realized that what I was really interested in was perception, human perception and how we see the world,” Duke says.
He explored other forms of imaging, and found laser holography.
“Holography is baffling,” Duke says.
“It’s amazing and it doesn’t seem possible, and so really in my experiments with holography, you know, I was confounded by it,” he added. “And the more I read, the less I understood in a strange way.”
Put those dictionaries away, however, because Duke knows that the hand-drawn holograms that he creates aren’t, in the truest definition of the word, actually holograms. Holograms are “a photographic recording of a wave interference pattern, and this is nothing like that,” Duke says. “But structurally it is…the way the image is composed is very similar to the structure of a hologram.”
Duke explained that holograms can be likened to distorted mirrors: Instead of light bouncing back predictably, a hologram bounces light back in a distortion that makes it look like the 3D object is there.
“Basically what I’m doing is the same thing, except just a much cruder version,” Duke says. “I’m carving tiny micro reflectors on the surface of the plate that are redirecting some of the light that’s hitting the plate in very particular, focused angles so that that light reproduces the illusion of an image, of an object there…one way to think about is it that, you know, a record is a groove that records sound, and what I’m doing is creating grooves that record light.”
The first record using “hologroove technology” was Jack White’s Lazaretto. The holograms need focused-point-source light, and when that is shone on the record the hologram appears, whether the record is spinning or not.
“The hologram is there, recorded in the surface of the vinyl and all it needs is, once its placed on the turntable, all it needs is to have that light shining from up above in order to replay the image,” Duke says.
These images include everything from the Death Star, to a TIE Fighter, and even the Millennium Falcon. Of course, you can’t jump in them and fly them around—or physically touch them either, for that matter.
“A hologram is an illusion,” Duke says. “You know, any hologram, I mean that’s actually what’s so compelling about the hologram…you have that kind of cognitive dissonance that takes place when you look at it because it’s an object that appears to be there that you logically know cannot be there. And so, that’s part of what I enjoy about the hologram, is that kind of like, yeah, that kind of paradox of its existence.”
Duke thinks that people these days tend to jump to technological answers instead of being in wonderment. At a recent dinner with Ricky Jay, Duke showed off a new optical invention and presented it as a magic trick.
“It was really great to talk to him about this, about my work kind of in the context of illusion and sleight-of-hand…it opened something up for me because I hadn’t really quite thought of my work that way particularly,” Duke says. “And there’s something kind of nice about realizing that somebody can, that you can present something as an illusion, as a magic trick if you will, and that that’s kind of like an interesting mode of presentation because it shifts people away from the like, the kind of Make Magazine-like how, or How It Was Made.“
And as for Duke, he’s interested in much more than that.
“I think what I’m drawn to about these kinds of illusions is the state of mind that it puts a person in, that cognitive dissonance again, that kind of like inscrutability of seeing something and not believing it at the same time,” Duke says. “You know, it’s like, it’s one of the cases where seeing is not believing.”
VIEWS’ optical illusion back design is eye-catching beyond belief, but it’s not the only thing this slick, entirely custom deck has to offer.
Both the courts and the pips are sleek and visually flat, a pleasant contrast to the illusory lumps and bumps of the white and mint backs. The deck is printed on crushed Bee stock and, according the lucky gremlins over at Kardify who’ve gotten their sticky mitts on a sample, handle perfectly.
Just released on ArtofPlay.com is Views Playing Cards! This trailer for Views was made by @PaulRobaia, and it features Dan Buck (@danielmbuck) and Paul Robaia. Produced by @gotmagic, these cards are a one of a kind. The back design features a beautiful mint undertone offset underneath a series of white dots; the design creates the feeling of looking at an illusion. The face cards are entirely custom, and the court cards, in particular, are modernized and feature a stunning mint and metallic gold color (in addition to red and black). The box has been gorgeously crafted on a vintage Heidelberg Press. It features 3 foils including gold, white, and green on premium, Plike paper. Available on ArtofPlay.com now. If you want your photo to be featured on our page, tag it @artofplay. #artofplay #cardistry #playingcards #bestcardistalive #magic
The tuck is crafted out of synthetic soft-touch paper and decked in hot-stamped white and mint foil.
If you fly regularly for work or pleasure, you likely know the takeoff drill: shuffle down the aisle toward your seat, put your carry-on luggage away, pack yourself in, and half-absorb the in-flight safety video while thumbing around on your phone or finishing off that magazine article you started. These safety videos are vital for informing the public about important procedures during emergencies, but once you’ve seen it a couple times, you start to tune it out. So how do you keep people glued to the screen long enough to tell them information they likely already know? Israeli airliner EL AL had a bright idea: hire a magician.
The video above features Israeli mentalist Lior Suchard, who starts the video by asking you to remember a card as he quickly flits through a deck. Now that he has your attention, he starts walking you through all of the procedures, from stowing luggage, to exit row locations, to oxygen mask use, and more. But this isn’t some stuffy explainer; Suchard throws mind-bending illusion after another at you, messing with depth, space, and camera angles to make objects appear larger or mess with your perception of gravity.
You can even catch a glimpse of how the video was made in the video below, where director Dror Nahumi and Suchard explain how they made it without the use of trick edits or computer-generated imagery. Suchard was even suspended at a 90-degree angle for over three hours for what amounts to about 15 seconds of footage, just to nail a really cool effect. “Our minds work on automatic pilot all the time,” Nahumi says in the making-of video. “It’s used to seeing things very clearly, and the moment the daily routine is broken, it seems interesting and magical.”
“It will be the first safety video people watch from beginning to end,” Suchard says. He’s not wrong.
Friday night’s coming up, which means it’s time to send the kids off to the sitter, put on your fanciest clothes, and spend a night out at the… *squints* Children’s Museum? Hey, why not?
The Hands On Children’s Museum in Olympia, Washington regularly hosts an Adult Swim event on Fridays, where the museum transitions from a playground of learning for youngsters into a 21+ only destination. And this Friday, the museum is putting on a special Illusions: The Science of the Senses event, complete with local award-winning magician Rick Anderson performing for guests.
On November 17, event-goers will be treated to an evening of head games and cocktails; interestingly enough, the museum remains mostly unchanged from its normal operation, other than the alcohol of course. There’s an escape room designed around sound, a silk screen press for creating optical illusions, a taste-testing challenge, and other experiments and exhibits to mess with. And of course, a magician will be on hand to delight and dazzle you while you explore, and a local DJ will be spinning tunes as well.
Tickets are available now for $20, or $25 the day of the event, and includes a gourmet cupcake, coffee, and one ticket for a signature fizzy drink. More information, including how to buy tickets and what other attractions are in store, is available at the museum’s official site.
It all started with an email from David Britland. David and I had been corresponding about unusual optical illusions, and he asked if I had come across Robert Harbin’s “The Transparent Man.” I said that I hadn’t and minutes later an intriguing set of plans arrived in my inbox.
Robert Harbin was born in South Africa in 1908. When he was in his early 20’s he traveled to London and started to work as a magic demonstrator and performer (“Ned Williams, the Boy Magician from South Africa”). Nowadays, Harbin is well known for a series of impressive creations, including “The Zig-Zag Lady” and his deceptive version of “Sawing a Woman in Half.” However, most magicians aren’t aware of a curious little book that Harbin published when he was just 21 years old. Entitled Something New in Magic, this slim volume describes a series of unusual and creative items, including a silk that suddenly changes into a table and a pile of children’s bricks that assemble themselves into a castle. Oh, and a simple but extraordinary idea entitled “The Transparent Man.”
Harbin’s illusion involves five large (approximately two-foot-by-six-foot) sheets of clear glass and a backdrop of bright white light. Three of the glass sheets are formed into an upright triangular tube and the remaining two sheets are placed parallel to two sides of the tube. A person stands inside the tube and, when the lights are turned on, the person appears to vanish. The performer can even walk behind the tube and the audience can see him through the glass sheets, further strengthening the illusion.
The method is as elegant as it is amazing. According to Harbin, the glass sheets create a series of reflections that cause the image of the backlight to be broken up, moved around the tube, and re-constructed in front of it. Moreover, the clever arrangement means that the image of anything, or anyone, behind the tube is also moved around it, thus allowing the performer to walk behind the setup and apparently be visible through the transparent person in the tube. The audience believes that they are seeing through the tube, whereas in reality they are seeing whatever is behind the tube projected in front of it.
Harbin’s idea reminded me of an article about the physics of invisibility that I had read a few weeks before. According to the article, physicists are attempting to make objects invisible by surrounding them with materials that direct light around the object. It seemed to me that this is, in principle, identical to the idea behind “The Transparent Man.”
There is, however, one small problem. Building “The Transparent Man” is tricky because it involves several large sheets of glass and creating an entire wall of light. In Something New in Magic, a young Harbin admits that he never actually built a full-size version of the illusion, but instead constructed a model that proved that the principle worked extremely well. As a result, it wasn’t known whether the illusion would work on a larger scale.
Indeed, there is good reason to be skeptical. In the only other article about “The Transparent Man” (Genii, January 2008), Jim Steinmeyer pointed out that the illusion involves the glass sheets being simultaneously both transparent and reflective and so “almost, but never quite, works.” In addition, in The Genius of Robert Harbin, Eric Lewis claims that Harbin’s original plans were wrong and presents a slightly modified version.
Fast forward a few weeks and I receive an email from Google’s Making and Science Team. I run an optical illusion- and magic-based YouTube Channel called Quirkology, and the email said that the Google team wanted to sponsor a science-based video. I instantly thought of “The Transparent Man” and asked whether they were interested in a video that attempted to recreate a large-scale prototype of the illusion and explored the science of invisibility. The proposal received a green light, and David Britland kindly agreed to act as an advisor. The game was afoot.
I started off by trying to build a model of the illusion. I bought some nine-inch-by-six-inch sheets of glass (the size originally used by Harbin for his model), arranged them on a tabletop, and placed a doll inside the tube. I placed a table lamp behind the entire set-up, turned it on and was amazed to see … a doll fully illuminated inside a glass tube. It wasn’t looking good. Ever the optimist, I thought that we might have more luck on a larger scale, and so decided to put together a half-size prototype. I bought several four foot by four foot sheets of glass, carefully placed them into the correct positions, and placed a pile of books into the tube. I placed a strong photographic light box behind the tube, turned it on and saw … a pile of books fully illuminated inside a glass tube! It still wasn’t looking good.
The next few days were spent systematically changing each part of the setup. I altered the brightness of the backlight. I removed the sheet of glass forming the back of the tube (as Jim Steinmeyer had pointed out in correspondence, it serves no real purpose). I changed the angle and positioning, of the side sheets. I altered the position of the object inside the tube. I shone the backlight directly through the sides of the tube. Along the way I sent some test stills and video to Jim Steinmeyer, who kindly provided helpful advice and comments. And eventually … success! After much experimentation I was able to have someone sit in the tube and apparently see the light shining right through them. Not only that, but I could hold my hand in front of the light and apparently see the silhouette of the hand through the person too.
In many ways, people had been right to be skeptical about the illusion—the plans in Harbin’s original book aren’t quite right. And the revised plans presented in The Genius of Robert Harbin are slightly wrong, too. However, the general idea is conceptually sound, and with a few tweaks here and there the illusion works really well.
Encouraged by our success I sent the plans of “The Transparent Man” to one of the world’s leading experts in the science of invisibility—Professor Ulf Leonhardt from the Weizmann Institute of Science. He confirmed that Harbin’s illusion is indeed based on the same principle as much modern-day research into invisibility, adding that in many ways Harbin was years ahead of his time. Professor Leonhardt then kindly agreed to come to The Magic Circle in London and appear in our video alongside the Circle President, and huge Harbin fan, Scott Penrose.
And so it’s official—at the amazingly young age of 21, Harbin was something of an optical genius. The basic idea behind “The Transparent Man” is sound and the illusion does work on a large-scale. Are the viewing angles limited? Yes. Did Harbin get all of the details exactly right? I don’t think so. But is “The Transparent Man” an elegant idea that was years ahead of modern day invisibility research? Absolutely.
Our YouTube video received over 200,000 views in just a few days. Take a look and see what you think. We hope that you enjoy it.
This article first appeared in the April 2017 issue of Genii Magazine.