Wanaka – Puzzling World 1

You wouldn’t expect to find a world-class puzzle museum in the small town of Wanaka in the middle of the South Island… is it an illusion? No, here it is!

Puzzling World hasn’t changed much in the last 35 years, but it doesn’t need to: one of its charms is that what it presents is puzzles and illusions which stand the test of time. There isn’t a computer anywhere, and there doesn’t need to be.

I’d like to say ‘this is because maths stands aside from computing and is a richer, more dignified subject, of which computing and computers is only a part’. This is undoubtedly true, but if I’m honest about 80% of Puzzling World is really about optical illusion rather than maths. Maths is important to creating the illusions, of course (e.g. in figuring out perspective); while the superb maze and the wide selection of puzzles in the shop undoubtedly involve maths – but I have to admit most of the visual stuff is optional illusion. None the worse for that, though, and it’s very well worth stopping for.

Most of the illusions and effects are familiar if you know this sort of stuff already. But the beauty is that what you’ve seen in books is built in reality here. In one room perspective is distorted so you appear to enter eight feet tall and leave only four; in another room the horizontal reference points are so wrong that you literally fall over (and see other people falling over); and all along the way there are things which you just know are false but yet are entirely convincing. I’ll try to give an explanation of each one as we go along, so this may take a while….

The first thing you encounter is a wall of Holograms. These are sort of run-of-the-mill these days, and certainly these ones have been here for at least 20 years – but I’ve still never owned one so it’s curious to be so close to them. And they’re still weird, strange things.

Next is a Plasma Ball. Again, nothing particularly special – but it’s unusual to have one so close and to be able to play with it.

The Tilted Room is a truly weird space – for me the most interesting part of Puzzling World. The floor slopes, which you’d imagine you could cope with – but here all the other lines you’d normally take as horizontals are drawn parallel to the floor, and verticals are also skewed. Your brain tells you how to stand up… but when you do that, you fall over!

The truth is actually that the chair slides under its own weight (or the weight of the person sitting in it), which means that the black beam the chair is on must actually be going downwards, even though everything in the room tells you it’s going upwards. To be precise, the black beam is going downwards towards the left at an angle of 2 degrees, which all the ‘horizontal’ lines are going upward at 15 degrees.

Sometime I’ll put a diagram here to explain this, once I’ve figured out what to draw…

This guy is standing (truly) vertically on (truly) horizontal steps; but it looks, and it certainly feels, like he’s leaning dangerously outwards.

It may be a comfort to know everything from here onwards is easier to comprehend, though some of it is still amazing. Next up is a Dazzle Wall, which plays with the eyes’ reaction to bright black and white patterns. Stare at this long enough and you might begin to see movement, green and red colours, and various other effects. You might also get a headache…

Around this point there’s a Wall of Following Faces – in fact there are five walls all around you, where 168 faces turn to follow you around. The trick point here is simply that if you take a concave image and walk past it, the eye interprets it as a convex image and makes it appear to be turning towards you. It’s a very simple effect, enhanced by effective lighting.

The Ames Room turns people into Dwarfs and Giants by playing with perspective. Look through the window and everything appears normal, but one of these doors is 3m tall and the other about 1.5m. It’s all quite unnerving when you see yourself on video, growing and shrinking.

Although not taken at Puzzling World, this photograph shows the effect the Ames Room achieves.

A well-known illusion comes next, though I’ve never seen it featuring Santa Claus.

Then there are a couple of metal-bending puzzles. This one has a big flap pointing out of the centre towards the viewer, and the question is – can you make it out of just one continuous sheet of metal (or paper)?

From a 3-dimensional puzzle to a truly 2-dimensional illusion. This is a piece of Andean weaving which is entirely flat: it just looks like steps.

There’s quite a collection of prints like this, playing with perspective.

The ideas of MC Escher and others are also well represented.

In similar vein, there’s an Amish quilt with a block pattern, appearing to contain a lot of 3-dimensional cubes. This kind of idea is used in many different Amish designs, most often in the Tumbling Blocks design.

Another old favourite is the ‘cafe walls’ illusion. Although the side walls distort the picture a little here, the main point is in the way the rows of squares seem go up and down as they cross the wall. They don’t!

The effect is well-known to people who tile walls for a living – hence its name the ‘Cafe Walls illusion’. Any professional tiler will be aware of it and will try to avoid it… but you still find the occasional do-it-yourself disaster falling into the trap.d

And just to prove it’s not simply a case of messing up your black and white tiles…

There are various other illusions including 3-dimensional ‘wall-paintings’ which play with perspective, and then we’re back to one of these – though this one seems unusually hard to understand.

Along the way there are a couple of toilets known as the Puzzle Abyss Toilets. Most people walk straight past these, so to make them look I stood with the door open ushering them in!

And again…

Lastly, a picture which only reveals its content when you look at it from the side. The technique of using knit and purl stitches to create a texture and a picture is well known to knitters; perhaps the unusual think here is the alternation of black and white.

Stand to the side, and the picture – just about – becomes clear.

There’s so much at Puzzling World that we need another page. Click on the link to continue the story at Wanaka – Puzzling World 2.