Out of Sight!
Out of Sight!
by Eric Berlin and Andrew Kantor

From Games magazine, April 1997
Bill Clinton has one on his desk in the Oval Office... somewhere. Bill Gates supposedly keeps his in a custom-made case. FAO Schwarz, New York City's gigantic, world-famous toy store, can't keep them on the shelves—and even when they are in stock, confused customers often approach employees to ask, "Why are there a bunch of empty boxes on those shelves over there?"

Such are the tales emanating from all corners of America as the object in question—the amazing new puzzle toy, Orion's Crystal—looks to replace Rubik's Cube as this decade's icon of deviousness. But whereas Ernö Rubik's creation had only one solution out of a billion possible combinations, Orion's Crystal consists of a mere eight pieces that fit neatly together to form a sphere. So why is Orion's Crystal so tricky? Well, see for yourself. Or rather, don't see. Orion's Crystal is invisible.

Well, okay, it's not. But this invention of Davis Merran, a 35-year-old Syracuse native and president of Whiz Kid Enterprises, is as spooky close to invisible as you can get, thanks to a new kind of windshield that was more—and less—than its makers bargained for.

Merran, a ceramics engineer and graduate of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, wasn't trying to create a new puzzle sensation. An employee of one of the Big Three automakers during the early '90s, he was simply trying to produce a better windshield—one that would reduce glare better than the traditional polarized glass used in most cars and trucks, thereby increasing visibility. But what he came up with, dubbed "Sunglass," didn't quite work out as planned. Glare was reduced, all right, but so was visibility—not of the road, but of the windshield itself.

Sunglass was (and is) virtually invisible to the naked eye—completely transparent, despite the fact that it reduces glare. And unlike regular glass, Sunglass proved transparent to ultraviolet radiation as well; drivers were getting sunburned just driving around the test track.

Because Sunglass didn't reflect light in the same manner as other transparent materials, and was stain- and water-resistant to boot, it often appeared as if there were neither windshields not windows in the test vehicles. People would reach into or out of a car and crack their knuckles on the window they didn't see. Sunglass was deemed a safety risk in its current form, and after further experiments revealed no improvement, the new polymer was thrown onto the pile of ideas deemed Good, But Not Good Enough.

Merran was fascinated by Sunglass, however, and after some negotiating, he bought the patents. He sketched a hundred ideas for using the odd new material, but none traveled any farther than the drawing board. While investigating various ideas and designs, Merran thought back to the startled reactions of the people who had banged their hands on the Sunglass. The windows were perfectly visible before they were installed, or when they were partially rolled down, because you could see the windows' edges—but hide the edges and you essentially had something that was invisible.

So Merran started doing what any good engineer does when he isn't sure how to apply a new invention: He played with it.

“You certainly would not know one was in the room with you unless you were told.”
"I thought, 'Well, for lack of any other ideas, could I improve what I called the visibility factor?' So I started experimenting with the refraction coefficients," he says, slipping into engineerspeak.

But even if you don't understand refraction coefficients and transparency gradients, the results are amazing. His Sunglass creations can scarcely be seen when looked at head-on, and you would certainly not know one was in the room with you unless you were told.

How does he do it? All he'll say, with a wry smile, is, "I've hidden the edges," which certainly appears to be the truth. Beyond that, he's not talking; although Merran holds two patents on Sunglass, a third is still pending.

Merran was still unsure how to market this material, so he decided to demonstrate it to various companies. To do so, he and his wife Naomi, an architect and puzzle enthusiast, designed a simple puzzle. They named it after the constellation Orion, because, like Orion's faint sword, the Crystal is most easily seen not by looking straight at it but by gazing just to its side and using your peripheral vision.

"When I showed Orion's Crystal to someone for the first time, the reaction was always the same," says Merran. "'There's nothing there,' they say, and look at me as if I'm a nut. Then when they reach out and actually touch something, they're usually too stunned to say anything else. And when I tell them the thing is a puzzle—well, they just can't rest until they've figured it out."

And so, with the help of several amazed and impressed backers, Merran's sample became his actual product, and Whiz Kid Enterprises was born.

The first stop for Orion's Crystal was the 1996 Toy Fair in New York City, where its debut turned into a comedy of errors. Thousands of attendees flock to this annual February event, many representing toy stores and chains across the country, all looking to stock the Next Big Thing. "Whiz Kid" Merran had appointments with several prospective buyers who had been intrigued by a press release touting a "mysterious, amazing new toy."

“When you lose something that's invisible, how do you find it again?”
And then his box of twelve Orion's Crystals was stolen. Merran had put it down for a moment—a tale heard often in New York City—and just like that, a dozen of his transparent spheres were gone.

"Oh, I had all kinds of horrible thoughts," he recalls. "I could get more from home easily enough, but home was over two hours away. Meanwhile, I had nothing to show the buyers. And if I went to the police, how exactly would I describe what was stolen?"

Merran wandered around the convention, waiting for some kind of idea to strike. He was at a complete loss: When you lose something that's invisible, how do you find it again?

Luckily, while the Orion's Crystals were invisible, the box holding them was not. And clearly the thief had no idea what he had lifted. After some frantic searching, Merran spied the box, abandoned in an out-of-the-way corner of the Javits Convention Center.

"I bet he looked inside, saw nothing, and dropped the box," Merran says. But the box was one its side—and empty. Once again, Merran panicked. Groping about the floor, he discovered one Crystal nearby, and several others a little further away. "I looked like I was trying to find the world's largest contact lens," he remembers. Merran couldn't find the others, and assumed they had been kicked across the room.

His suspicions were confirmed a split second later, as he heard someone down a nearby aisle yell "Whoa!" Rushing over, Merran saw a confused conventioneer picking himself up off the floor. Falling to his hands and knees, Merran soon found another Orion's Crystal. The startled but uninjured man, the owner of a novelty store in Denver, became Merran's first buyer after being introduced to the item that had literally knocked him off his feet.

Merran grins at the thought. "Heck of a sales tactic, no? I should find that thief and give him a commission."

Several other people also found themselves suddenly sitting on the floor, but no one actually got hurt, unless you count a few bruised egos, and Merran managed to recover nine of his dozen samples. "The others must have rolled too far out of the way," he says. "I'll never find them, but neither will anybody else."

With his Orion's Crystals safely back in the box and his worries safely behind him, Merran went on to impress many more toy execs, and returned home with three fewer Crystals but thousands of dollars in orders.

Mass-producing Orion's Crystal was the next step, and this turned out to be a little tricky, as you might imagine. It took a while before Merran and his workers got themselves organized, and in that time, more than a few Crystals were lost and "are still rolling around the factory somewhere," Merran says. And of course, some of the corresponding, seemingly empty boxes really were empty but were sent out to toy stores nonetheless. Now each box is weighed before shipping, and while Merran still faces a few problems not experienced by your average toy company, the largest one is simply keeping up with the demand.

Picking up and using Orion's Crystal for the first time is one of life's more extraordinary moments. Your mind insists, absolutely insists, that there is nothing of interest here in front of you. Even when you are finally holding the Crystal in the palm of your hand—it's about the size of a softball—your mind remains firmly in denial, for you cannot see it. You want to see it; you're demanding your eyes to function. The heft is undeniable, you can feel the smoothly polished surface, you can feel the crack where the sphere divides into the individual pieces. But your eyes refuse to pick up a visual.

Finally, at long last, you turn your head slightly to one side and—there! An edge, a slight detail. Out of your peripheral vision you can see, ever so faintly, that you are holding something in your hands. You quickly snap your head back to center—and it vanishes again. Just holding an Orion's Crystal is exhausting, much less trying to disassemble and reassemble the darn thing.

Just as amazing as Orion's Crystal itself has been the reaction of the world to its existence. Teachers are constantly taking them away from students who claim to be playing with "nothing." And the labs at MIT are booked with students using ruby lasers and refraction analyzers trying to figure out how the thing works. None have succeeded, although Merran admits that one senior who wrote him "was on the right track."

“Just holding an Orion's Crystal is exhausting, much less trying to disassemble and reassemble the darn thing.”
Merran's biggest chuckle was leaning that the U.S. Army is using the puzzle as a training exercise for its nighttime operations, having soldiers put it together blindfolded. Some have claimed it's actually easier to solve that way.

Although he says he's delighted with the newfound publicity, Merran has politely declined hundreds of requests to speak at public events.

"They want me to give a speech to a convention of physicists," he says, grinning. "Hoping maybe I'd slip and tell one of my secrets." If so, that hope has been shared with umpteen other conventions and conferences, not to mention a few commencement speeches at assorted universities. Of these, Merran has accepted exactly one engagement: the opening of a Bethpage, Long Island-based store called Clear Thinking, which specializes in glass knickknacks and all other things transparent—including Orion's Crystal, of course.

"How could I resist helping out a store like that?" says Merran. "Transparency has made me a lot of money lately."

Money or no, Merran is hardly resting on his laurels—he's presently creating more products with his famed Sunglass. The first new arrival, expected this fall, will be an Orion's Crystal yo-yo, to be called the No-No. You guessed it: The only thing visible is the string, which appears to be straightening out and winding back up of its own volition. "The visible string will also make this one harder to lose," adds Merran.

And by 1998, Merran hopes to be stocking toy stores with—are you ready?—invisible jigsaw puzzles.

"I read that there are lots of jigsaw addicts who don't like to look at the picture as they solve, who like really challenging, difficult puzzles," Merran says, pausing a moment to reflect. "Well, I don't know how you could get more challenging than this."

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