This 3D brain bending staircase has just won the best illusion of the year for 2020

It’s been a year, but we’re home. Now, let’s celebrate by looking at something very strange that doesn’t seem to make any sense to my poor confused brain.

What we have here is the winner of this year’s Best Illusion of the Year competition for 2020, and he is truly a worthy mind lunatic, taking one of the most famous traditional 2D optical illusions and realizing it confusingly in three-dimensional space.

It was designed by the mischievous mathematician Kokichi Sugihara – a celebrated Japanese illusionist and repeated winner whose work we have repeatedly featured on the site – this is called the 3D Schröder Staircase.

The classic Schröder Staircase, published in 1858 by German scientist Heinrich GF Schröder, would later evolve into other forms in the work of Dutch artist MC Escher, but the astonishing simplicity of the original is still astonishing.

In the illustration, at first it seems an unambiguous representation of one staircase seen from above, two staircases (the other seen from below).

Schröder staircase. (Heinrich GF Schröder, via Kokichi Sugihara)

If you can’t visualize it, simply turning Schröder’s staircase upside down makes the alternative perspective visible … but perhaps only briefly, before your mind experiences the psychological phenomenon of Gestalt Shift, in which your perception goes back to its earlier interpretation.

In his new address to this already twisted topic, Sugihara has now reshaped the same illusion of a 2D staircase into 3D form, devising a cardboard clipping that does exactly the same trick when viewed from a particular perspective – although the actual physical shape of what you see is nothing like what it looks like. .

“The existing 3D object also has two interpretations, both of which are viewed from above, and the interpretations switch from one to the other when we rotate the object 180 degrees around the vertical axis,” Sugihara says.

010 shroeder staircase 33D Schröder staircase. (Kokichi Sugihara)

But only because that’s it it seems like does not mean that it is what it is.

On his website, Sugihara teases how an illusion is actually created, going as far as providing a free diagram of a ‘construction kit’ for impossible steps, in case you like to make a storage set at home.

At the heart of the illusion is a simple trick: stairs can look like stairs, but they are actually a flat surface, cleverly using corners and shading to fool your brain.

To facilitate the work of visual perception, our brain makes convenient assumptions wherever it can. Dark tones mean shadows, hinting at depth; Convergent lines are usually a measure of distance. Put them together and your lazy brain will try to find a familiar story that matches the shapes. Of course it’s not okay, but usually these forms actually form staircases.

“This object is an example of my experimental material for researching brain behavior that is capable of misperceiving 2D images as 3D objects when embedded in real 3D structures,” Sugihara explains, noting that adding real 3D side walls and support pillars fulfills an enchanting illusion.

“As a result, we notice a new ambiguity, which differs from that of the original Schröder staircase.”

In addition to turning the 3D Schröder stairs (the 3D equivalent of turning the 2D illustration upside down), careful positioning with a mirror also reveals something unusual: both perspectives are seen at the same time, and the Gestalt Shift can do nothing about it.

010 staircase shroeder 3(Kokichi Sugihara)

Wonderful. Congratulations, Kokichi Sugihara!

For even more illusions from this year’s competition, you can see all the finalists on the Best Illusions of the Year website.

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