The Best Optical Illusions of 2021 Will Mess With Your Head

Every year, the Neural Correlate Society, a nonprofit that promotes research into cognition and perception, runs a contest to find the best optical illusion. This year’s winner is The Phantom Queen from contestant Matt Pritchard, where a mirror and a wall make it look like an invisible queen is moving across a chess board by itself.

The Phantom Queen uses anamorphic camouflage to hide the queen. The cleverly designed wall replicates the look of the chessboard while hiding the queen from the viewer but showing it to the viewer in the mirror. I hate it.

A good optical illusion instills the viewer with a sense of wonder. The creator crafts something that tricks the mind and, with a small shift in perspective, shows the viewer a new way to look at the world. A good optical illusion still carries a sense of wonder once its mechanics are revealed. A bad optical illusion feels like a cheap trick. The winner of 2021’s best optical illusion is more like the latter.

My problem with The Phantom Queen is two-fold. First, it requires so much to be perfectly positioned. If the viewer, the camouflage, or the mirror move slightly then the entire illusion is shattered. This is not at all the case with previous winners of this prestigious award. Take for example 2019’s winner, Frank Force’s Dual Axis, which appears to rotate on a different axis, or clockwise or counterclockwise, depending on the context. No matter how you look at it, it’s going to mess with your head. Second, there were so many other incredible entries for 2021.

My favorite from 20201 is the Slime Hand from Yutaro Sato, Kento Imai and Kenri Kodaka. The illusion used slime and a mirror to trick the viewer into believing their hand was being manipulated beyond the bounds of what was physically possible. This illusion tricked more than the eyes, it produced an impossible physical sensation.

The list was also peppered with more traditional entries. The Emergent City Flyby With Colossus where the motion of white dots on a black background creates the illusion of a cityscape. Pause the video while and watch the city completely fade away. The Double Ring illusion is a classic trick of the visual sense. And Crocs and Socks (an illusion similar to the blue and black/ white and gold dress) will have you arguing with your friends for a day.

All of these are powerful and mystifying illusions with interesting things to teach us about human perception. The Phantom Queen is just a David Copperfield style trick done on a small scale.

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