Edinburgh's Camera Obscura and World of Illusions occupies a building that stands only a hundred yards or so from the lower end of Edinburgh Castle's esplanade, yet we suspect is it far less well known than it deserves to be. Those who enter find a range of connected attractions which, between them, ensure that this should be considered a "must visit" by anyone in the area: and given it's proximity to the castle there is never any shortage of people in the area.
Let's start at the top of the building. The crowning glory is Edinburgh's Camera Obscura. A camera obscura is a device that uses lenses and mirrors to project an image that enters through a hole at roof level downwards onto a circular screen housed in a darkened room within the building itself. The device can be rotated, so the view projected onto the screen can take in a complete 360 degree panorama.
In an age in which we all view moving colour images of reality on a daily basis it is easy to become a little "so what" about the idea of a purely mechanical contrivance which uses lenses and mirrors to project an image of the surrounding area down onto a circular table. The truth is that even to modern eyes the effect this creates is startling and slightly magical, and it is hard to imagine just how remarkable this must have looked to its first visitors, in an age before any other form of moving pictures existed. The location of this particular camera obscura, in the heart of Edinburgh, gives it a wonderful range of subject matter that adds greatly to the experience.
Edinburgh's Camera Obscura was established as part of "Short's Observatory and Museum of Science and Art" on its current site in the early 1850s by Maria Theresa Short. The instrument used for viewing today has three lenses instead of one, and projects onto a much larger viewing table. The amount of visible detail tends to depend on how bright a day it is outside, but the joy of seeing Edinburgh as it has been seen for over 160 years is remarkable. Each viewing session is led by a guide who helps to bring the views of the outside world to life in a highly entertaining way. It is even possible to pick (images of) people up on your hands and make the traffic climb over paper bridges.
The second major attraction on offer is the wonderful set of views of Edinburgh available from the rooftop viewing areas surrounding the tower of the obscura itself. Edinburgh is a city that has no shortage of excellent viewpoints, but there's a strong case to be made for the Camera Obscura as the best of them. To the west it offers an outstanding view of Edinburgh Castle, while the view to the east down the Royal Mile is amazing. Other views take in the old town and the new, and extend to Fife in the north and the Pentland Hills in the south. Powerful, free telescopes allow you to see the city in detail, while viewing panels help you identify what you are looking at.
Within the building itself are a series of further attractions, all developing the theme, as the name of the attraction suggests, of "illusion". This is particularly fitting as the whole idea of optical illusions fits very neatly with the way the world is viewed as if by magic through the camera obscura itself. If, like us, you start your tour at the top of the building, you find yourself descending through layer upon layer of different types of illusion and visual trickery, all of which comes increasingly together to form a remarkably coherent and impressive experience.
The uppermost floor houses the Magic Gallery. This is home to some amazing optical illusions, and you can explore the effects of bendy mirrors, lenses, shadow walls and colourful giant kaleidoscopes. The level of interactivity is impressive and the whole thing is great fun. Well, apart from the disappearing sweets, perhaps! Particularly intriguing is the seemingly endless "ladder to Australia", intended to provide a short cut right through the centre of the Earth's core. The Electric Room allows visitors to hold lightning in their hands with the giant plasmasphere; to see their voices crackle in blue lightning as they talk to sound sensitive luminglass plates; or to enjoy the sensation of touching the green crackle ball and white lightning tube.
Descending another floor brings you to Light Fantastic, home to, amongst other things, one of Europe's largest collections of holograms. A particular feature of the collection is the number of images of classic horror characters, or other scary images such as dinosaurs and a giant tarantula that projects five feet into the room.
Another floor down brings you to Eye Spy Edinburgh, which brings the sense of illusion back to the city around you. Here you can see how Edinburgh has changed by comparing views 150 years apart. You can also view Edinburgh in three dimensions in Victorian times, today and from the air, and explore different ways of seeing in 3D. To bring things bang up to date, you can also control a bank of live viewcams covering parts of the city that can be panned and zoomed by visitors.
Some of the most spectacular, and largest, exhibits are found on the first floor of the building. We were especially impressed by a mind-bending mirror maze, where the sense of illusion is heightened by the changing coloured lights. The nearby vortex, a tunnel which appears to rotate as would walk through it was also highly impressive, but remarkably disorienting at the same time.
Everyone who visits Edinburgh's Camera Obscura and World of Illusions will form their own opinions of favouite elements. We've already mentioned the mirror maze, which is certainly one of ours. We were also very taken with the automaton of a pair of singing cats, accompanied by a dog on a piano. The "head on a plate" illusion, that effectively allows visitors to exist just as disembodied heads is also highly entertaining. And as you descend to the shop at the end of your tour, the effect of the musical staircase is great fun: as is the nearby "Autowed" machine which, for just £1, conducts a wedding ceremony, prints a certificate and issues two rings...
But those are just a few of our favourite exhibits. If you are in Edinburgh you really should go and discover your own!