Exploring the Ames Room

Some of our favorite optical illusions are our life-sized ones. Like something out of Alice in Wonderland, visitors can step inside and experience the world as they never have before. We boast an Ames Room, an Infinity Room, a Reverse Room, and more at our New York City location. Even though you’ll be in the Meatpacking District, it will feel like you’ve been transported to another world. 

Today, we’re talking about the Ames Room. One of our most popular exhibits, and one of the most notable illusions. The Ames Room is usually one of the first things that come to mind when people think of optical illusions. This is because it set the stage for many modern illusions. Not only is the Ames Room mind-blowing, but it’s also a commonly-used practical effect in movies and television. In fact, we bet you’ve seen the use of an Ames Room on the silver screen at least once before.

More on the movies in a little bit. For now, let’s take it back to the beginning.

The History of the Ames Room

It all starts with a man named Hermann Von Helmholtz. Von Helmholtz is commonly known as the father of modern perception studies. In the late nineteenth century, he had an idea for a “distorted room.” One that would be warped, but look perfectly normal to the naked eye. This distorted room would take advantage of people’s depth perception and perspective. Von Helmholtz’s vision never came to fruition. It did, however, lead to the birth of one of the most prevalent illusions of all time.

A diagram of an Ames Room shown from above to illustrate how the illusion works.
An aerial view of an Ames Room to illustrate the forced perspective.

In 1946, an ophthalmologist named Adelbert Ames took on the task of making the distorted room a reality. Though he never referenced Von Helmholtz in his work, many believe that he got his inspiration from the noted German physicist. Ames took the idea of the distorted room a step further. He discovered that there was more than one trick of the mind that can be done in an Ames Room. He noted that in addition to misperceiving size, his distorted room caused viewers to perceive balls as rolling up slopes instead of down them.

Ames discovered the power that experience has on perspective, making way for most of the optical illusions that we love today.

What is an Ames Room?

An Ames Room is constructed so that, when looked at head-on, it appears to be a normal rectangular room. In reality, the room is a trapezoid. The walls are slanted, and the ceiling and floor are built at an angle. The illusion can be enhanced by adding a visual cue on the back wall, such as the one pictured below. We placed our Museum of Illusions New York logo in the center of the back wall to make the illusion even more effective.

A picture of two people in the Ames Room at the Museum of Illusions NYC. The woman on the right appears to be much taller than the man on the left.
The Ames Room at the Museum of Illusions NYC. Our logo is placed in the center to make the illusion more effective.

Original Ames Rooms were observed through a small peephole, which hinders the viewer’s sense of depth perception. Thus making the room seem like any other room. The difference is, that a person standing on one side of the room will look drastically smaller than a person standing on the other side.

The Ames Room works for the same reason that an airplane looks tiny in the sky but huge up close- depth perception! The small airplane is far away, and the huge airplane is up close. The person standing on the “small” side of the room is further away (and the ceiling is higher). The person standing on the “big” side is closer (with a shorter ceiling).

Today, instead of looking through a “peephole,” we ask visitors to view the Ames Room through their camera lens. This provides the same effect and makes for a funny photo. This concept is one that has been seen many times throughout cinematic history.

Ames Rooms in Movies and Television

Like we said earlier, you’ve almost definitely seen an Ames Room in action before. Even if you didn’t know it.

One of the most famous uses of the Ames Room effect in cinema is in the Lord of the Rings Trilogy. Cinematographers used this optical illusion to make the hobbit and dwarf characters look small and the other characters appear to be looming over them. For example, the interior shots in the Shire that show Gandalf towering over Bilbo in the first movie are all thanks to forced perspective.

Some other well-known cinematic examples appear in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Elf, and even digitally replicated in Super Mario 64.

Now that you’re basically an Ames Room expert, why not come see one in person at the Museum of Illusions NYC? Be sure to bring a friend so you can tower over them. Plus, we have a bunch of other exhibits that utilize forced perspective- check them out here!