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Image courtesy of Hyungkoo Lee

Is this the future of smart mirrors?

Expert Carl H Smith discusses how the new types of mirror on the market can give us both a better and more distorted vision of ourselves.

“The eye only sees what the mind is prepared to comprehend” – Henri-Louis Bergson

What role does the mirror play in how we perceive, construct and reproduce ourselves? In a time of computer-generated special effects, cameras with beauty mode and deepfakes, are we just deluding ourselves when we seek to know ourselves objectively? How can we be ourselves if we don’t interact with the real version of ourselves?

Mirrors have a long history of affecting our sense of self, which allows us to use them as tools to explore the mechanisms of our own perception and psychological development. Journalist JR Thorpe writes in Bustle that mirrors “are used to test when we develop self-consciousness.... Reflections aren’t just about what we read into them; they are also keeping us self-conscious and present in our bodies.” We know, however, that mirrors do not create an objective image of the viewer, as our reflection is reversed left to right. Does this distortion promote a distorted self-image?

A non-reversing mirror, called a ‘true mirror’, was developed specifically to undo the distortion caused by traditional mirrors. It allows the user to see their reflection as others see them. A true mirror gives you a 3D reflection, which moves as you do, rather than giving you the flat image from an ordinary mirror.

"Our mobile devices are perhaps the new mirrors"

Our mobile devices are perhaps the new mirrors. Often we avoid looking in mirrors and would rather adopt a filtered view, curating what we see and the reality we would rather live in. We use the technology now available to us to re-imagine what already exists, using this shift of perspective to shape reality instead of changing reality itself. 

The traditional mirror and filtered views of ourselves create a narrow reality tunnel. The problem is, when you return from an event (such as a wedding) and see the photographs, the filtered view is shattered as you see yourself from angles you are not used to, much like hearing a recording of your voice on tape. We don’t hear ourselves because our voice box is too near to our ear. In the same way, we cannot see ourselves the way others see us. 

Conversely, mirrors can also be powerful perceptual tools for helping us diagnose our own mental state. Mirror therapy has been shown to provide insight in a clinical context. There is a prevalence of body dysmorphia where someone perceives (and experiences) a normal healthy weight range as overweight. An anorexic young woman may look at herself in a mirror and see a reflection that is greater than her actual size. As Anaïs Nin once said, “We don’t see things as they are, we see them as we are.”

"One of the other known effects of mirrors is that they can cause hallucinations"

To complicate things further, mirrors have actually been used to change perception of body size. Research from Macquarie University has shown how people can be manipulated when they briefly look at images of other people who are larger or smaller relative to them; this affects the perceptual mechanisms making them think they are bigger or smaller than they really are

One of the other known effects of mirrors is that they can cause hallucinations. Just as staring into someone’s eyes for ten minutes will cause you to hallucinate, the same is true when you stare into your own eyes in the mirror. This is known as the Troxler effect, an optical illusion where your face starts looking like it does not belong to you.

Mirror fasting is a practice that stops you looking at your reflection completely. This could be a useful learning tool (reflecting on not reflecting) but does it potentially stop you working through actual body image issues?

Mirrors can be designed as tools to shift our perception and our behaviour in multiple ways by creating specific realities and corresponding identities. For example, the HiMirror Mini scans your face to detect flaws and presents you with a detailed analysis of the most unattractive parts. It displays a percentage result for problem skin areas like wrinkles, fine lines, complexion, dark circles, red spots and pores.

Your own reflection in this context becomes a tool to help you make informed decisions in order to maintain a healthy lifestyle. But it could also lead to seeing yourself exclusively from the perspective of the damage negative, a fragmented self-perception with parts of you judged as ‘not attractive enough’. Technology like this is meant to give us the insight and understanding we need but it could be both a blessing and a curse.

As a counterpoint to the HiMirror Mini, ‘The Objectuals’ is a project from Korean artist Hyungkoo Lee who attempts to regain control over his own image, by exploring the re-configuring of perceptions of beauty. Hyungkoo uses helmets, which are fitted with interchangeable concave and convex lenses which shrink, expand and distort his features in an exploration of temporary body modification. He explores the cultural perceptions of what can be perceived as real in relation to the body, objectifying our desires to visually manipulate the human form.

Lygia Clark in the 1960’s created ‘Dialogue Goggles’ where the participants get the images of themselves and of their surrounding environment through mirrors. The movement of the mirrors breaks up the participant’s view, which is intended to engineer a novel dialogue.

The 360 Degree Mirror restores the peripheral view (and our resulting sense of self?) by featuring a seven panel 360 view that makes all angles visible simultaneously

"Mirrors can lie but by combining multiple mirrors and types of mirrors we can get a more authentic picture"

‘Identity Check Mirror’ from Chris Stone and David Fox involves mirrored surfaces that are tilted to create distorted images, reflecting objects from different parts of the room with the intention of creating ‘blended identities’. “Originally, it started as a design that we hoped would fracture our images as we stood next to one another – so that we became blended in the reflection,” said the artists. “But then we liked what was happening as we created these deep concave surfaces. At certain angles when one stands in front of the mirrors, one can only see a tiny slice of one’s own likeness.”

Look in the mirror and dislike what you see? Mirrors lead to a greater understanding of self but also contribute to the proliferation of the otherness of self, providing us with yet another hall of illusions to get lost in. Reflections in this mirror may be distorted by socially constructed ideas of beauty.

What is vital is not how much or little we look in mirrors, but how we process what we see. A reflection in a mirror will only reflect the way you perceive yourself. Mirrors can lie but by combining multiple mirrors and types of mirrors we can get a more authentic picture.

As the famous theoretical physicist David Bohm states: “The more views we get, that we can integrate and make coherent, the deeper our understanding of the reality is... Everything... every view is limited. It’s like a mirror looking this way, that way, another, many mirrors. Each one gives a view, but a limited view.” 

Professor Carl H Smith is the director of the Learning Technology Research Centre (LTRC) and a Principal Research Fellow at Ravensbourne University.