Mirror Master: Mathematician Cures the Driver-Side Blindspot

By Wesley Fenlon

Mirrors may be thousands of years old, but recently a math professor has shown how much more we can do with curved metal surfaces.

Mirrors are old. Thousands of years old. They don't exactly seem like the trickiest bit of technology to invent--once you've spotted your reflection in a shiny piece of stone or metal, you're going to figure it out pretty quickly. And once glassmaking came around, well, the leap to glass mirrors seems only natural. The silvered-glass mirrors that we know and love today are relatively young, comparatively--they were invented in the early 1800s. Since then, inventors have discovered convex glass can provide a wider field of view of the world, and glass surfaces with both concave and convex segments (aka carnival mirrors) can create crazy distorted reflections of reality.

The work of mathematics professor R. Andrew Hicks may represent the most significant evolution in mirror technology since...well, glass. Hicks has been using math for years to design mirrors that reflect light in just the right ways--they're essentially finely-tuned versions of the carnival mirrors that make everything look all wacky--and has come up with some impressive reflective surfaces.

For example, he's developed a curved mirror that reflects the world without reversing its image. It's one smooth piece of glass, not a pair of mirrors connected at a 90-degree angle like a traditional non-reversing mirror. As you'd expect from a mathematics professor, algorithms made it all possible--Hicks worked out equations to represent the kind of reflection he wanted to create, then used those to develop the coordinates for thousands of tilted points on the mirror's surface.

Hicks has invented and patented a driver-side mirror for cars that eliminates blind spots.

When those coordinates are fed to a machine and ground away with a diamond, they can create all sorts of mirror variations--another example, which Hicks calls the vampire mirror, doesn't even create a true mirror image. If you look into the mirror and wave your left hand around, it'll look like you're actually moving you right.

More importantly, Hicks has invented and patented a driver-side mirror for cars that eliminates blind spots. Here's how it works.

The driver-side mirror expands the usual field of view, which is less than 20 degrees, to about 45 degrees, using a convex surface. And there's very little distortion to the image, which is the real breakthrough--anyone could slap a regular curved mirror onto the driver's side of the car, but it would distort everything so badly it would hardly be a service to drivers.

Hicks' design does present a disadvantage of its own, though--it makes everything look further away, which is an unavoidable side effect of a wider field of view. The mirror may never find its way into cars in the United States, because regulations in the US value accurate proximity over field-of-view when it comes to driver's side mirrors. It's not an awful policy, but drivers can probably adjust to the "objects are closer than they appear" effect more easily than they can overcome a blind spot.

If Hicks' mirrors find their way into cars sold overseas, they may eventually trickle back to the United States. And in the meantime, we'd love to get one of those vampire mirrors. Just think of all the Looney Tunes pranks we could re-enact.

Photos courtesy R. Andrew Hicks