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:
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.”
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?
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.