A trip back in time to discover the Ames Room

Let's take a trip back in time, growing and shrinking in a room of distorted perspective, dropping straight into a scene out of Lewis Carroll’s, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland – you guessed it, we’re going to be exploring the Ames Room.

Our story begins in the late nineteenth century with a gentleman named Hermann von Helmholtz who had an amazing idea. What if a room could be distorted in some way, but also look like a completely normal rectangular room? Helmholtz understood the importance of perspective in depth perception and realised that perspective was more important than stereoscopic disparity (that’s basically binocular vision) for seeing distances and three-dimensional shapes. However, he didn’t test his hypothesis.

Several years later, an ophthalmologist named Adelbert Ames Jr. had a similar idea to Helmholtz. Although he didn’t reference Helmholtz in any of his work, many believe Ames’ idea was based on the nineteenth century concept. In 1935, Ames created the first ever Ames Room! Through construction and testing of the room, Ames went beyond Helmholtz’s concept. He was even the first to discover the impact of experience on perception.

But what exactly is an Ames Room?

It’s a room that is built with both the floor and ceiling at an angle, creating forced perspective and tricking your eye into thinking both sides of the room are the same. The actual shape of the room is a trapezium.

     Diagram of Ames Room

This means that if twins stand at either side of the room, one will appear large and the other will appear small.

Ames's original design also included a groove that was positioned in such a way, that it made a ball appear to travel uphill. This effect can also be seen in anti-gravity hills such as the famous “Electric Brae” in Ayrshire, Scotland.

And why exactly does an Ames Room make objects appear to grow and shrink?

This all comes back to depth perception. Imagine you were stood in front of a cow and could also see a cow in the distance – the cow in front of you would appear large and the cow in the distance would appear smaller. The Ames room is based on the same concept. When a person moves to the left-hand side of the room, they are actually further away and the ceiling is higher. They appear as a smaller image on your retina and you therefore perceive them as small. The opposite effect occurs on the right-hand side of the room.

Strangely, the effect isn’t always as obvious to those who are familiar with the person in the room and married couples may see less size distortion. This is called the Honi phenomenon.

There are many Ames Rooms across the world, such as in the Turm der Sinne (Tower of Senses) in Nuremberg and at the Exploratorium in San Francisco, as well as at Camera Obscura & World of Illusions. Construction of our very own Ames Room involved research trips and mini prototypes before we achieved the final result, which was opened to the public in 2010.

The science behind the Ames Room can also be seen in film. In the Lord of the Rings trilogy, this trick is used to make the hobbits appear smaller than their ‘human’ counterparts. In the 1971 film Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, this trick is used a little differently. Instead of making someone seem very small, it’s used to create a false sense of distance between one end of a corridor and another.

Willy Wonka

Now you know a little more about the history and science behind the Ames Room, why not get creative and try make your own distorted room at home. We’d love to see your very own forced perspective illusions. Get templates and find out more at instructables.com.


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