‘Illusion’ Exhibit at OMSI

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Illusion Logo

The Oregon Museum of Science and Industry (OMSI) is hosting a new exhibit: Illusion. The exhibit debuted in Ireland at the Science Gallery at Trinity College, and will be at OMSI until February 19, 2018. It was created and curated by Richard Wiseman and researched by Paul Gleeson, AKA Rua. I was invited to attend the opening night, and really enjoyed the exhibit, which is included with the price of admission.

From the title, I was expecting an exhibit about, well, optical illusions—the sort of thing you typically find at science museums. And don’t get me wrong—I love optical illusions, and there are some on display here. But Illusion is perhaps more like an interactive art gallery, with pieces that play with our understanding of perception and reality. There’s a section that examines how machines “see” the world, and a few pieces that even show how we look at things and what we’re looking at.

The Hurwitz Singularity
‘The Hurwitz Singularity’ by Jonty Hurwitz is an optical illusion sculpture. Photo: Jonathan H. Liu

There were two pieces I liked that involve perspective: The Hurwitz Singularity is a sculpture by Jonty Hurwitz, consisting of six “slices” of a head, paired with a small ring on a stand. The slices are different sizes, so you couldn’t assemble them into a single head, but when viewed through the ring, they line up and appear to be the same height, forming a complete head.

Screen Mutations by Louisa Zahareas
‘Screen Mutations’ by Louisa Zahareas. The left shows the actual objects from the side, and the right shows how they appear from the camera perspective. Photos: Jonathan H. Liu

Another piece I enjoyed was Screen Mutations by Louisa Zahareas. It’s a set of tableware—teapots, mug, forks—that are weirdly distorted and misshapen. There’s a camera set up on one side of the display case, and a video screen shows the camera’s perspective. From there, it looks like things are normal, just distorted a little from the camera angle. Screen Mutations plays with the idea that a lot of our life is now mediated through a screen (like the one you’re looking at right now) and that we are used to the way things appear through the camera lens. The real-world distortion of objects to match a screen image is striking when you can compare the two side by side.

Unseen Portraits
‘Unseen Portraits’ by Philipp Schmitt & Stephan Bogner. Photo: Jonathan H. Liu

I was particularly drawn to the machine-vision section, which had a number of pieces about how machines “see” and how we teach them to see. Unseen Portraits is a digital pieces by Philipp Schmitt & Stephan Bogner—a camera takes a photo of you, and then gradually distorts it while running it through facial recognition software until it is no longer able to recognize that it’s a face. It was interesting to me how quickly the camera couldn’t recognize a face, even though almost any person would be able to look at it and see that it is a distorted face. That’s an interesting contrast to the times when I’m trying to take a photo of something and my camera thinks there’s a face when it isn’t.

3RNP by Patrick Tresset
‘3RNP’ by Patrick Tresset. Photo: Jonathan H. Liu

Another example of machine vision is 3RNP by Patrick Tresset. The title stands for “Three Robots Named Paul,” and the piece includes three artist’s desks, each equipped with a robot arm and a camera. A person (or, in the case of this exhibit, a skeleton) sits in a chair, and the three robots (named Paul) look at the human and sketch what they see on paper. It was a lot of fun to watch the camera look up at the subject and then down at the paper, though I’m not entirely sure why it needs to do so—perhaps to add to the sense that the robot is observing you? The portraits are made up of little short scribbles, and remind me a little of the robot drawing in the I, Robot movie, though not quite as neat. There were some portraits on display—some you could tell were faces, and some you’d have a hard time telling what they were if you didn’t know.

The robots were fairly vigorous in their drawing, and sometimes shifted the paper despite the magnets attaching the paper to the desk—but then continued drawing. In one instance, one robot arm somehow got completely turned around, and was actually scribbling away in the air off the side of the desk. The OMSI staff who was attending to the exhibit remarked that it’s a great example of what machines can and can’t do, and the differences between a mistake a person would make and a human would make. A human would have a hard time drawing a perfect circle, but it would never sit and draw in the air without realizing the paper (and the desk) were somewhere else.

Those are just a few of the pieces from the Illusion exhibit—there’s plenty more, and it’s definitely worth a visit. For more information, visit the OMSI website. For more about the exhibit, visit the Science Gallery website. (Note: the exhibit Seeing includes many of the pieces that are now at OMSI, though it isn’t exactly the same.)

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