- This year's Illusion of the Year is an anamorphosis: a perspective-based illusion.
- Anamorphosis dates back at least 500 years and is popular in the art world.
- These illusions require a specific viewing angle or equipment.
The votes are in and there's an official winner for the 2021 Illusion of the Year: "The Phantom Queen." It's a clever—but also charmingly analog—optical illusion depicting a chess queen that's invisible from one side of the chess board. At play are some of the simplest, but most effective, mechanisms that fool our eyes.
The Neural Correlate Society, a nonprofit group with an executive board made up of scientists in the United States and Spain, hosts the contest each year. President Susana Martinez-Conde even heads her own eponymous laboratory at the State University of New York's Downstate Medical Center, where the group's research focus is "on understanding the neural bases of our visual experience."
"The Phantom Queen," is delightfully homespun. A hand-drawn and colored chess grid sits in front of a mirror, with black pieces arranged on one side and an incongruous white queen in the center of the side visible in the mirror. You can even see the individual marker strokes on the gray squares.
A change in perspective reveals that the queen is hiding inside a very special little box, built and camouflaged so that it's invisible to the watcher. This, the video explains, is called "anamorphic perspective."
That's a highfalutin' term, but a simple concept you've probably seen in other places. Anamorphosis deals with pieces of art or design that require you to look from a specific place or perspective, or by using a particular device (like a mirror). Even primitive animations, like zoetropes or flip books, could arguably be called anamorphic illusions.
The painting is believed to be a statement about the fleeting nature of life, with an anamorphic skull creating an incongruous diagonal slash across a scene of two men standing in a parlor. This skull must be viewed from an odd, low angle beneath the painting.
Drawing illusions like this is really challenging, both for the planning of the distorted image and the logistical realities of drawing longer lines, larger surfaces, and so forth that must all be as smooth as their smaller counterparts.
The rug video brings up a natural follow-up question: can animals see optical illusions? This is not widely studied, but it makes for great video content.
You may also recognize one of the greatest tropes from the Coyote and Roadrunner cartoons of yore. It's when the coyote paints an anamorphic tunnel on a stone face in the desert, but then gets run over when a real train comes out:
When even children's cartoons capitalize on your illusion, you know you've really made it.