Ambiguous Cylinder Illusion Explained by 3D Printing

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Nowadays, the Ambiguous Cylinder Illusion has turned into a viral sensation and 3D printing has been successful in solving the riddle that has not only enchanted the Reddit community but the entire world.

Kokichi Sugihara, a Japanese engineer and artist, made up this illusion. He released a video in which plastic rectangles change into circles as soon as they are reflected in a mirror. It was even more puzzling to witness that the illusion worked in reverse as well. Therefore, it did not come as a shock to see this video make it to the finals and get the second position in the 2016 Best Illusion of the Year competition.

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Sugihara told:

“The direct views of the objects and their mirror images generate quite different interpretations of the 3D shapes. They look like vertical cylinders, but their sections appear to be rectangles. In the other view they appear to be circles.”

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The video turned out to be an enormous viral hit on YouTube as well as Reddit. This video has scored more than 2.4 million views on YouTube up till now after it was posted on Reddit, which has the capability of sending almost anything viral. Everyone watching this video was left confused as they were seeing the instant transformation of apparently solid shapes in a reflective surface. Check out the video:

Now, let’s see what is actually at work here.  By means of a 3D printer and enough dosage of curiosity, Devon from 3D printing specialists ‘Make Anything’ reverse-engineered the whole trick. He found out that the objects were neither circles nor squares. Each part of the illusion lies somewhere between the two shapes, with two curved sides and two squarer sides. The rounded sides have a downward slope whereas the square sides have an upward curve. In addition to this, the sides have different heights as well. All of these differences are not obvious straightaway because the white surface helps in hiding them. Therefore, this illusion plays with our sense of perception in order to generate a mind-boggling effect. Have a look at the following video explaining the magic at work here:

Basically, when our brains interpret the shapes, they see what we are expecting to see. We fill in the gaps mentally. Hence, in this way we provide power to the illusion which was the actually the point of the whole exercise.

Sugihara intended to enhance our level of perception of how the brain processes information by challenging our comprehension. He illuminated:

“How we see the outside world, our perception, is generated indirectly by brain mechanisms. So all perception is illusory to some extent. The study of illusions is critical to how we understand sensory perception and also many ophthalmic and neurological diseases.”

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That is one lofty ambition for a clever trick and we are not expecting any medical innovations as a direct result, nonetheless there is surely some thought-provoking science at work here. The limitations of our eyes and the receptive sensors in our brain are depicted via this illusion. It is actually playing with our mental blind spots.

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Sugihara clarified:

“We cannot correct our interpretations, although we logically know that they come from the same objects. Even if the object is rotated in front of a viewer, it is difficult to understand the true shape of the object. Thus the illusion does not disappear.”

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You can also make this cunning trick for yourself by downloading the STL file for Devon’s 3D printable cylinder on Thingiverse. It is an exclusive trick that you will certainly enjoy. Also, it shows the potential of 3D printing when it comes to reverse engineering this and more complex issues that we face every day.