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The More, the Mirrorer

Kids find multiple ways to explore imagery at 'Lasers, Light and Illusions.'


The newest Launch Pad exhibit will have kids beside themselves . . . not to mention dancing on air and morphing into the king of beasts.

"Lasers, Light and Illusions," the first exhibit to be created for its audiences by the science center, debuts Saturday at the Launch Pad storefront site in Costa Mesa's Crystal Court.

A permanent, hands-on exhibit, it aims to give visitors a playful grip on potentially baffling scientific principles. Most of the pieces were developed by Launch Pad staff with the help of an advisory committee of local educators, scientists and engineers.

Launch Pad, which opened in 1993, is the preview facility for the Discovery Science Center, an interactive science museum scheduled to open in Santa Ana next spring. According to the center's executive director, Karen Johnson, Launch Pad will continue to operate as its own entity until at least 1999, and "Lasers, Light and Illusions" will remain at the Costa Mesa venue.

Building its own exhibit (previous Launch Pad displays were bought or loaned from other sources) has been a good way to prepare for the task that lies ahead at Discovery Science Center, Johnson said.

"We'll be creating about 100 exhibits costing in the millions and millions of dollars," Johnson explained. "Building 'Lasers, Light and Illusions' has let us work through the process on a smaller, more manageable level while keeping the content at Launch Pad fresh and exciting."

Tucked into its own windowed gallery, "Lasers, Light and Illusions" will teach how light travels, how it reflects and refracts, and how our mind processes images. A display of anamorphic art, which seems indistinguishable until it is viewed from a certain angle or through a curved mirror, will illustrate the role of illusion and perception through four original pieces by artist Karen Mortillaro.

Laser technology--that mysterious stuff that reads the prices of our groceries, erases pesky wrinkles and plays our compact discs--will be explored in hands-on stations and in hourly live demonstrations by Launch Pad staffers.

The point, says Launch Pad director of exhibits Mark Walhimer, is "to get kids excited about science [by] sneaking in the educational stuff with the fun stuff."

To demonstrate that, Walhimer took a visitor on a tour of the exhibits while they were under construction at the cavernous production facilities of Display Works, an Irvine builder of trade show displays for companies such as Nike and Toshiba. First stop: "Look Into Infinity," a lesson on visual illusion and reflection.

Walhimer knelt on the sawdust-coated floor to approximate a child's height and peered through eyeholes drilled in the display's front. On this day, he saw only the display's rear plywood wall, but when it is complete, he'll be treated to a view of thousands of side-by-side Walhimers peering back. The "infinite hallway" illusion, as he calls it, will be created by mirrors arranged inside the box.

After a stop at the morphing kiosk, where kids can watch as their projected video image is "morphed" into one of a dozen or more animals, Walhimer demonstrated how illusion and laser technology can work together at the "Guess the Effect" display. Here, visitors learn the process behind special effects in movies from two eras of film technology: "Darby O'Gill and the Little People," released in 1959, and the $100-million 1994 action-adventure "True Lies."

High-intensity lasers such as those used in surgery are too dangerous for children to use, but the ones used in "Lasers, Light and Illusions" are perfectly safe, Walhimer said.

"They're very low-powered, about the same as a laser pointer," he explained. "You won't feel a thing, even if you put your hand right in front of one." Kids can do just that in the "Laser Communicator." The display, about the size and shape of a kitchen table, enables a child to talk into a microphone at one end and transmit his or her voice through a single laser beam to speakers at the opposite end of the table. The transmission can be interrupted by putting a hand in front of the beam.

As Discovery Science Center director Johnson noted, "Lasers are fairly contemporary, and they hold a certain amount of mystique for people," adding that hands-on exploration demystifies the technology.

Besides, she added, "it's just a neat thing."


"Lasers, Light and Illusions" is at Launch Pad on the third floor of the Crystal Court mall, 3333 Bear St., Costa Mesa. 10 a.m.-9 p.m. Mon.-Fri., 10 a.m.-7 p.m. Sat., 11 a.m.-6 p.m. Sun. (and some holidays). $5 for ages 3-12; visitors 13 and older get in free when accompanied by a child. (714) 546-2061.

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