Magic Ring

Here’s a movie of a brilliant, double spiral novelty illusion ring.  It’s available to buy from Grand Illusions, and on that link you can also see another movie of the illusory effect.  As the ring is rotated, it seems to expand when rotated one way, and contract when rotated the other way.

It just may be the kind of ring described in one of the oldest reports of an illusion to have come down to us – a description by the French commentator Montaigne, written nearly five hundred years ago.  In an essay called An Apology for Raymond Sebond he describes …

….those rings which are engraved with feathers of the kind described in heraldry as endless feathers – no eye can discern their width, or defend itself from the impression that from one side they appear to enlarge, and on the other to diminish, even when you turn the ring around your finger.  Meanwhile if you measure them they appear to have constant width, without variation …..

However, there’s another illusion, which is more likely to be the basis for the effect Montaigne describes.  It’s the Zollner illusion, the illusion that gives rise to the wavy wall effects described in our previous post.  As pointed out by Jacques Ninio in his 2001 book The Science of Illusions (page 15), a design on a ring like the one below looks wider at the top than the bottom, but is objectively the same width all the way along.

All the same, Montaigne’s description of rotating the ring makes me wonder which illusion was involved.  So I’m on the hunt for surviving mediaeval rings that might decide the issue. And meanwhile, though there are theories about how the Zollner effect arises, no researcher as far as I know has an explanation for the effect shown in the novelty ring available from Grand Illusions (and other suppliers).  I reckon it’s to do with the way that the highlights expand or contract with rotation, but then seem to carry the outline of the object with them.  This is a puzzle which I will be coming back to.

Decor with Attitude

This is an installation called Zig-Zag Corridor by Czech artist Petr Kvicala, in the Dox art centre in Prague, Czech Republic.  He’s an artist who produces dazzling patterned effects.  In this one, beautiful diagonals meander through the patterns, although the linework is entirely made up of a continuous sequence of horizontal and vertical segments.

However, as my friend Alex noticed, when he featured the installation on his site devoted to stunning photos of architecture in a district of Prague, Vrsovice Photo Diary, there’s another effect here as well:  in places the walls seem to bow outwards in the middle, and the right wall doesn’t look flat at all.  That’s because of an illusion that arises whenever long lines intersect or abut an array of parallel or systematically varying obliques, as to the right above.  The apparently bowed long lines are objectively straight.  It’s called the Hering illusion, first scientifically reported by Ewald Hering in 1861. It’s a special case of the more general Zollner illusion, published by the astronomer and mystic Johann Karl Friedrich Zollner a year earlier.

I don’t know whether the artist introduced these effects by accident (and they probably appear more strongly in photos than in the real installation).  But it’s very, very easy for these illusions to sneak unintended into designs – as I let them do, when I failed to realise their contribution to a quite different effect in an earlier post.