In the Exploratorium’s distorted room

The San Francisco Exploratorium is the Mind Hacks of science museums – every exhibit is hands on, giving you the chance to experiment with and experience for yourself scientific principles.

Obviously, one of my favourite exhibits was a psychology demonstration, one based on a classic visual illusion known as the “Ames’ Room”. We’ve a small model of this in Sheffield, which I use when teaching PSY101, but the Exploratorium’s “distorted room” is full size demonstration of the effect. Here’s me and a friend in the room:

Notice anything odd? We’re the same size in reality, but I (on the right) look significantly larger.

The illusion takes advantage of the unavoidable principle that size and distance are confounded – known as “Emmert’s Law“. It is Emmert’s Law that means that big things far away can look the same size as small things near by. Our brain makes assumptions about how far away things are and uses these to inform our impression of size. The distorted room is built so that, from one perspective only, the two sides of the room look an equal distance away. In fact, the corner on the right is far closer to the viewer (the camera in this case) than the corner on the left. Because I really am nearer the camera I make a larger image on the retina (take up more pixels on the camera), but because the brain assumes that I am the same distance away as my friend on the left the only conclusion that my visual system can draw is that I must be much larger than him.

Normally your visual system isn’t fooled about depth – clues in the scene, the difference between the image on your two eyes and movements of your head can all help reveal how far away different parts of the scene are. The distorted room removes some of these clues by forcing you took look at the room with one eye from a fixed point, and other clues it deliberately tricks (like the shape of tiles on the floor, which look the same from left to right, but actually get smaller, because the tiles on the right are closer).

The confounding of size and distance is the same principle behind illusions like this:


The effect only works because it is in a photograph (so from one perspective) and because the relatively featureless desert removes other clues to the depth of objects.

So the next time you close one eye and line up someone in the distance between your thumb and forefinger while muttering “I’m crushing your head!“, think of Emmert’s Law. And if you are in San Francisco, visit the Exploratorium!

2 thoughts on “In the Exploratorium’s distorted room”

  1. I’ve heard that the illusion only works in societies with square rooms. I don’t have a source for this though…

  2. It has been claimed that those in societies which have less need of looking at things in the far distance (e.g. jungle dwellers) never learn to intepret 3D dimentions in the way we do. See here for example
    But I’m skeptical. All people need to tell how far away things are – otherwise picking up a cup or throwing a stone at a target would be impossible. The distorted room uses a number of these different clues to depth, so even if an individual was lacking a reliance on one, he or she would probably be fooled by the others.

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