Faces in the snow

A hollow impression of my face in the snow.

The hollow face illusion is a wonderful visual effect in which a hollow mask of a face appears to be convex, like the face itself. Making a hollow mould of your face (for example using plaster) is difficult and potentially dangerous. However, last weekend my attention was drawn to an easier and safer way.

I was walking down from Coire an Lochain in the Scottish Highlands with a group from the Red Rope club, when I saw my friend Maia standing on the path ahead, chuckling. She’d been making face imprints in a steep snowdrift, and they showed the hollow face illusion beautifully.

Ben face plantThe procedure needs no explanation (see right). The snow needs to be fresh and soft; you’d be surprised how hard it is to push your face into what feels to your hand like very soft snow. The tip of my nose is noticeably flattened in the picture above.

Ben and Matthew on skyline
Near Coire an Lochain on the day in question. (Readers familiar with Highland place names will realise that I’m not giving much away here.)



This is not an illusion


This image is my version of Edward Adelson’s checkershadow illusion (with a little inspiration from Magritte). It’s a photograph of a real, physical scene.

Take a look at the central square of the checkerboard, and the square indicated by the arrow. Which is lighter?  Quite clearly, it’s the central square, isn’t it?

Remarkably, the central square actually emits less light than the square indicated by the arrow!  You could use a light meter to check this claim, but it’s easier to verify it directly by using a piece of card with two holes cut in it to mask off the rest of the image.

Some people will tell you that this image shows you how easy it is to fool your brain. But it does the exact opposite: it shows you what a marvellous piece of equipment your brain is.

Think about the checkerboard itself, and the materials it’s made of. The arrowed square is coated with dark grey paint, and the central square is coated with light grey paint—and that’s exactly what you perceive.

The shadow cast by the pipe means that the light-grey central square is more dimly lit than the dark-grey arrowed square, so much so that it actually reflects less light into your eye than the arrowed square. But your brain cleverly manages to determine the actual lightnesses of the physical surfaces, despite the uneven lighting. Isn’t that a good thing for your brain to do?

If you still don’t believe me, try this thought experiment. Imagine that you live in a forest where there are two kinds of fruit. One is light grey and poisonous, and the other is dark grey and nutritious. Two of these fruits hang next to each other, but in the dappled forest light the (light grey) poisonous fruit is in shadow, and the (dark grey) nutritious fruit is in bright light. Suppose that the depth of the shadow is such that the light-grey poisonous fruit actually reflects slightly less light into your eye than the dark-grey nutritious fruit, just as with the two squares in the picture above. Would you really want your vision to tell you that the poisonous fruit was the dark one and therefore the one to pick? Or would you want it to discount the irrelevant effect of the shadow and tell you which fruit was actually dark and which was actually light (and would kill you)?  I know what I’d want.

I think that it is wrong to call this effect an illusion (and so does Adelson). There is nothing illusory about what you see. You perceive the useful truth about the scene in front of you.

Lilac chaser

The lilac chaser is a remarkable visual phenomenon that is normally seen as a computer animation. Dr Rob Jenkins of York University wanted to show people that the effect works with real, honest-to-goodness, physical lights, so he asked me to make him the equipment to do this. The video below shows you how the apparatus works. Note that the limitations of my camera mean that the effect is not as strong in the video as it is in real life.

I used an Arduino microcontroller board to control the LEDs.

One useful technique that I developed here was a way of producing an an even spot of light from an LED. Diffused LEDs give an even spread of light but send light in all directions, which is wasteful if you want only a small bright spot. Clear LEDs are available which direct the light in quite a narrow beam, but the distribution of light is very uneven. I found that shining the light from a clear LED down a short white tube, about 10 mm internal diameter and 60 mm long, did a very good job of producing a sharp-edged even spot on a piece of tracing paper placed at the end of the tube. I assume that the many reflections inside the tube thoroughly mix up the light. I found the tubing in the plumbing section of a hardware shop, and lightly roughened the inside of it using fine sandpaper.

To get a spot with a blurred edge, I placed a second tracing-paper screen a short distance away from the end of the tube. By varying the distance of this screen I was able to vary how blurred the patch of light on it was.