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This mirror never lies

A woman looks at herself in the mirror

The Scottish poet Robert Burns once wished that some great power would grant people the ability "to see ourselves as others see us". Well, wish no more, Robert! Thanks to a mathematician from Philadelphia, humanity is no longer doomed to seeing our images reversed in mirrors. We’re finally free from the curse of backwards writing on t-shirts and seeing our hair parted on the opposite side. (That is what Burns meant, right?)

Anyway, Andrew Hicks has invented a mirror that reflects a true image back to the viewer, rather that a reversed one. To do it, he used computer algorithms to determine how to subtly tilt thousands of points on the mirror’s surface in order to give a true picture. Instead of simply reflecting light back from a flat surface like a normal mirror, the tilts reflect the image along the mirror’s surface, flip the image and send the light back to the viewer’s eye.

The non-reversing mirror is just one of many that Andrew has designed. There’s also one that eliminates the blind spots on drivers’ wing mirrors, and another for reflecting infrared light. New Scientist has an entire gallery of Andrew’s mirrors on their website. Once he’s got a design, Andrew sends it to a Canadian company that can make mirrors to his very precise specifications. Sometimes it can take a whole day for their milling machines to make one.

Andrew’s talent for designing mirrors comes in handy in his day job too. Researchers in robotics and computer vision often use wide-angle lenses to get the images they need in order to, say, control their robots or do surveillance. The problem is that the mirrors and lenses that give those wide views also distort the image as a side effect. Getting around the distortion usually requires some fancy programming, but Andrew has designed a mirror that not only gives a wide angle, it unwarps the image itself too. In fact, that makes the mirror a kind of analogue computer: it’s using angles and physics to transform the image rather than processors.

Who’d have thought that we would one day be solving the great problems of literature with computer mirrors?