Sunderland academic bids to become world’s top illusionist – vote here

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An academic is on the verge of becoming the world’s top illusionist – and you can vote to take his work onto the world stage.

Dr Mike Pickard who lectures at the University of Sunderland, where he studied for his PhD, Masters and degree in Design, has been named in the final top 10 in the international visual science competition, the Best Illusion of the Year. For the first time this year the competition, which runs in the USA and is considered the world’s most prestigious, is open to public votes.

Mike’s work, the ‘The Day it Rained on Lowry’, was created with fellow Sunderland academic Gurpreet Singh, and uses visual illusion to bring the legendary ‘matchstick men’ to life.

You can vote for ‘The Day it Rained on Lowry’ online this Friday (June 12) from 00:01 until midnight, at: http://illusionoftheyear.com/
In Lowry’s original painting, ‘Returning from Work’, we see the industrial landscape and matchstick figures typical of the artist, with bent figures appearing immobile. However, this illusion changes all that as the figures seemingly start to shuffle along.

Mike says: “In reality, the characters are moving backwards and forwards and only seem to shuffle because a perceptual bias has been created that favours seeing the small forward movement. This appears much larger to the viewer who, in a way similar to how we navigate through crowds using just passing glances, unconsciously extrapolates the movement forward.”

Dr Mike Pickard and Gurpreet Singh are researching the link between visual science knowledge and art and design practice.

“Animated illusions are a useful way of doing this as they often involve visual principles that can be taken on board and used by designers to enhance their work,” added Mike. “Our approach is based on this using multimedia to examine and test illusion effects and then use them in creative concepts created to show how they might be used in design practice.”

In 2014 Mike and Gurpreet an exhibition of fifty unique multimedia based illusions at the University of Sunderland’s Design Centre, with more exhibitions planned for the future.

The Day it Rained on Lowry: How does the illusion work?

In the illusion, the figures are continuously moved backwards and forwards. However, if left at that, this would give rise to an unpleasant flickering effect and no illusion. In order to create the impression of forward motion it is necessary to have a visual bias that favours perception of the forward movement at the expense of its reverse.

This bias is achieved using carefully constructed images that run continuously in a loop. This commences with Lowry’s original picture followed by a darkened version in which the workers have been moved slightly forward and their body positions adjusted. These changes are very small (between 2-5 pixels) but are easily detected in peripheral vision

The original image then has to be restored in such a way that the reverse movement involved is not readily apparent. This is achieved using negative images that ‘damp down’ visual impact whilst assisting retention of the after-image from the original picture.

The ‘weather’ based concept of rain, thunder and lightning used in the illusion also serves a purpose. It provides a ‘rationale’ to account for the flashing and colour changes seen as the illusion runs but which are an integral part of making it work.

Although the actual positional changes made to Lowry’s picture are very small, the apparent motion created appears much larger because the viewer is extrapolating forward motion from the small amounts of data available. The illusion is more pronounced when viewed peripherally and is not unlike the way in reality that we navigate our way through crowds using passing glimpses of movement to compute other peoples motion and direction without having to think about it.

Does the illusion relate to any experiences we might have in our daily lives?

As can be seen, the illusion is stronger when the figures and their small movements are viewed peripherally. This is to be expected as one of the roles of peripheral vision is to detect and draw attention to small movements seen from the ‘corner of the eye’. The relevance of this in daily lives as we move about is self evident.

The illusion also makes use of the way that the brain is then able to extrapolate such movements and their directions from just small amounts of visual input. This conserves mental processing capacity for more important things and if necessary alerts the visual system to focus on things that require more detailed attention. Without this facility driving would be impossible!