Jeff Lieberman was a graduate student in robotics at MIT Media Lab when he first started experimenting with slow-motion imaging in a class at the Edgerton Center—a lab named for the MIT electrical engineering professor Harold "Doc" Edgerton. Credited with bringing the stroboscope into commercial use, Edgerton also used high-speed flash to pioneer slow-motion photography in the late 1930s. For Lieberman, learning Edgerton's techniques was his first opportunity to fuse his engineering background with his love of photography. For the last decade, he's been mixing high-speed strobes with high-speed movement to make slow-motion videography.
Now, Lieberman is adapting those same principles in the form of a design object anyone can buy—a picture frame that can make its three-dimensional contents look like they are moving in slo-mo through some very clever optical trickery. The so-called "Slow Dance" frame started out as a wedding gift for Lieberman's friends, but enchanted so many of their mutual friends that he decided to launch it on Kickstarter. Four days into the campaign, Lieberman has nearly doubled his original goal $70,000 due to outsized demand for what is essentially a very clever optical illusion.
Lieberman has long been fascinated by light and human perception, using it to make stunning works of art. For the past few years, he hosted a show on the Discovery Channel called Time Warp that revealed unseen aspects of the world through slow-motion photography. For Slow Dance, he wanted to bring the magic off-screen. "The thing that I was wondering is how do take this slow-motion footage that people love so much but that you can only see through a really expensive camera, and how do you put it back in our physical universe?" Lieberman says in the Kickstarter video for the project. "How do you let someone own something that actually moved in slow motion?"
His answer was to replicate the ingredients that go into slow-motion photography in a physical way. The magic of the frame is the result of two major elements: the first is recessed LED lights within the frame that blink at a rate of 80 times per second. In the same way that your eyes process images on TV as movement rather than a series of still images, the viewer perceives the high-speed strobe lights as continuous light.
The second element involves an object—a feather, leaf, or branch, for example—that is placed between an electromagnet copper coil and magnetic springs. The springs jolt the object into motion, and the blinking light only illuminates the movement at one spot. Since the blinking is too fast to be perceived by the human eye, it looks to us like the object is ethereally dancing in slo-mo inside the frame.
For Lieberman, the Slow Dance frame perfectly exemplifies what he finds most fascinating and most poetic about slow-motion imaging. "This project only works because you don't see all of reality," he says. Our sensory system is only capable of picking up on a tiny window of reality—we can't see things that move at the speed of light, for example, or microwaves rippling through the air. It's only because of those limitations to our perception of reality that the trick of the frame succeeds. "If you use a feather, it breaks a very specific set of rules that your visual system is made to expect," a feather to move, he says. "My deepest dream is that it reawakens people to the kind of wonder that we had as little kids."
The concept has certainly proved popular: Slow Dance surpassed its funding goal of $70,000 on the first day. The frame can still be pre-ordered through the campaign for $249 and will ship in March 2017.
[All Photos: via Jeff Leiberman]