How The RIT Stairwell Illusion Works

How The RIT Stairwell Illusion Works One of the most popular videos on Break this weekend was Amazing RIT Stairwell Illusion. If you haven’t yet seen it, check it out now:

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So how does this illusion work? Well, it doesn’t. What you’re witnessing is the illusion of an illusion. In short, this video is a fake. This is variation on a concept called Penrose Stairs, created in 1959, which, itself, has roots in an illusion created in the 1930’s. I’ll get back to the RIT Stairwell in a moment, but first let’s trace the evolution of the illusion. In 1934, Swedish graphic designer Oscar Reutersvärd created a series of optical illusions we’re all familiar with now. He created a series of 3-D geometric figures that are only possible in 2-D space. Not only did he create an “impossible triangle” but he also created an “impossible staircase.”


Penrose Triangle                


Penrose Stairs

 In 1959, mathematician Roger Penrose and his son published their own impossible triangles and staircases without having ever seen Oscar Reutersvärd’s work. They made these figures popular, so these figures bear their name. After seeing their work, which was published in a volume full of impossible objects, MC Escher created his famous lithograph “Ascending, Descending” showing figures moving around a Penrose Staircase. Ironically, it was Escher’s work which had inspired Roger Penrose.

Ascending, Descending by MC Escher

 A sculpture of the Penrose Triangle exists in Perth, Australia.

 When viewed from the correct angle, the Penrose Triangle appears to be real and complete. An illusion, it is incomplete when viewed from any other angle. A twist on this appears in the movie, Inception. In Inception, it is the Penrose Staircase that receives this treatment. Remember this?

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The RIT staircase is a twist on this concept, but clearly it was executed differently. Click on the next page to learn the how and the why of the RIT staircase.

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We already know that staircases that end where they begin can’t exist. They are illusions, impossible objects. The RIT Stairwell can’t exist in real life; thus, it must be fake. In the RIT video, a host sends a student up the staircase, and when the student reaches the next flight, she is greeted by her host. Or is she? The video relies on the fake viral video technique of using a continuous take to convince you that what you’re seeing is real, and what you’re seeing here is real. A girl reaches the top of the staircase and sees her host. Or it could be a guy who looks a lot like the host, a twin.

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We see an inversion of this trick later in the video. Instead of sending a student up the stairs, the host descends the stairs, meeting the guy he left at the top of the stairs. Or maybe he meets a guy who looks like the guy he left at the top of the stairs, another twin. This sequence uses another technique to convince us that what we’re seeing is real: the students holding hands around the staircase. Why go to such elaborate lengths to convince us this is real? This was originally a Kickstarter project by students at the Rochester Institute Of Technology to “create a myth” by producing a short film in time for the Imagine Rochester festival, on May 4th, 2013.

The Kickstarter sought $12,000 for production and only raised $940. The filmmakers were going to create the myth by developing supplemental materials to support the idea that people had been talking about this for a while (ala The Blair Witch Project), including creating clips from of a 1997 TV show with people talking about the staircase. Although they didn’t reach their goal, they had already begun production and clearly finished in time for the festival. Many of you pointed out that this video was fake and questioned why we would post an obvious fake. The better question is why wouldn’t we? While I hate most viral marketing campaigns, A good fake can be a good time, and some of the most memorable videos we’ve ever posted have been fakes. So enjoy the video, send it to your friends, and then tell all your friends about the history of the Penrose Stairs.


Earnest (@earnestp on Twitter)

Still reading? Check out these fun optical illusions:

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