New York Press, May 1994, The Patent Files
Truth in Mirrors: Reflections in the Eye of the Beholder, by David Lindsay
John Walter doesn't want much. He just wants you to see yourself as you never have before.
"We'll get some reactions a little later," he says, his True Mirror as yet unveiled on the chair beside us in the usual crowded café, "because it ends up being a kind of litmus test for how people are."
The inspiration came to him about 10 years age. Seems he was having a grand old time at a party until he looked into the medicine cabinet mirror and saw something unpleasant, something foreboding. When he turned one of the mirrors at an angle, however, he got that "non-reversed" effect known to self-oglers the world over, and his buoyant mood instantly returned.
From that day on, Walter wondered how he might construct a mirror that would give a non-reversed reflection of the human face. The idea sat on his shoulder while he tested satellites to see if they could withstand nuclear war. (The job ultimately disgusted him.) It whispered in his ear while he underwent studies at Life Springs, and organization he describes as a cousin to EST. ("It's too bad they started proselytizing.") Then, about two ears ago, he decided that he was simply going to make this True Mirror thing work.
A cinch, you might say, but in practice it's not so easy. Take two mirrors and place them at a right angle and you're sure to be distracted by an unsightly seam running down the center of your eyes. Walter thought that was distracting, too, so he struggled to render the seam invisible.
It turned out that most of his problems had already been solved in the piecemeal advance of history. About 100 years ago, a man lost to history had the bright idea of putting the silver used to make glass reflective on the front of it. (Since we're talking about a three-dimensional physics problem, you might want to take my word for it when I say this makes a difference in the True Mirror experience). Of course, silver tends to scratch at the merest nick, but here Walter lucked out again, because in the century-long interim, another sharp thinker had invented a polymer no more than three atoms thick. With this winsome plastic, Walter could coat away to his heart's content.
Next was the problem of mass-producing a mirror with an extremely straight edge, so as to keep the seam tight. This was not tidily accomplished either, since stress fractures tend to have small jags on them. But by using glass of the right width, Walter soon had an edge true enough for government work.
The mechanics thus explained, I play devil's advocate. People can see themselves on videotape easily enough, I suggest. Wouldn't a camcorder fulfill the same function? "Videotape doesn't give you real-time representation," Walter replies, maintaining eye contact with an unnerving candor. "It shows you a version of yourself that's already gone. A mirror, on the other hand, provides a feedback loop, so you can change you image while you see it." As for those video cameras in store windows, Walter rightly points out that real-time video images don't let you see yourself looking into your own eyes. Your gaze is inevitably trained away from the monitor.
Suitably convinced that Walter has thought this thing through, I suggest that it's time for a look.
I hadn't expected much, I guess. I had read the press release and noted that about 10 percent of the people surveyed saw something important about themselves in the True Mirror. But, you know, about 10 percent of the people I surveyed think a Chia Pet adds tone to any home.
Well, what the hell.
What I see is a little disconcerting. I look into what should be two mirrors set at right angles, but it doesn't seem like two mirrors. Walter has done quite a job of getting rid of the seam, all right. There's my face in the center, crooked smile to the other side. I have the sensation that my face is floating somehow. It's pleasant and disorienting at the same time.
Not much of a scientific test, I'll admit. It happens to be a beautiful day, and I happen to be in my first good mood in weeks. I'm also not the kind of guy who responds well to solicitation. Ask me if I like a movie before the house lights are on and I might pan your mother. So when Walter wants to know how his mirror makes me feel, I feel my jaw taking on the shape of a clamshell - a nd shutting.
All of which only serves to demonstrate a certain point: mirrors are so damn psychological. Are you the sort of person who will steal away to peer longingly at your mug until it changes shape, changes age and starts to run numbers on your soul? Or are you the type who can't bear to see yourself - an irritable, naysaying Narcissus? Either way, there's no way around it: mirrors and humans make intense partners.
"When I first looked in this mirror," Walter tells me, "the message I got back was that I was really okay. I think a lot of people, when they look in a regular mirror, start to feel bad about themselves. But what I've discovered in showing this around is that people who have some idea about themselves will really respond to it."
As if on cue, someone from the next table over approaches us and wants to know what the buzz is all about. He looks into the True Mirror with a dawning fascination, takes a quick snapshot and segues right into business.
"Right now, they cost $150," Walter asserts. "When I get into bigger production, they'll be about $100."
Another guy comes over and starts asking questions. He's a little more tentative, but cheerful nevertheless. He looks furtively at his reflection, then speculates about possible applications for it: in clothing stores, on movie sets. Though his background is in physics, Walter could care less about scientific applications. "If they use it, fine," he says. "I'm more interested in people."
And he is interested in some fairly interesting people at that. Once, for example, he took a prototype to one of the famous Rainbow Gatherings, where the majority of his subjects, it can be assumed, were under the influence of some kind of powerful psychedelic drug. Not your usual looking-glass-lovers, but lo and behold, the True Mirror was a hit. A whopping 75 percent responded favorably.
Indeed, one can only guess what effect the True Mirror might have on the many unsolved personalities of the world: schizophrenics, manic-depressives, autistic children. For the nonce, however, Walter is happy enough to have forged a mirror worthy of the production line. As he polishes his prototype and starts to wrap it up, he relishes in it's sturdiness for a moment, pointing out the fine points of its design. And if it should fall, perchance to break?
"Seven years," he says, laughing. "Of good luck."
Illustration by Michael Kupperman