Friday, March 25, 2011

Video Game Expert Unlocks Secret Animation in Google’s Houdini Doodle

SAN NARCISO, Calif. -- Thursday marked the 137th birthday of legendary magician and escape artist Harry Houdini. To commemorate the one of the world’s most influential illusionists, Google released a special doodle on its homepage, reminiscent of the posters Houdini had used to promote his act during the early 20th century. Google has made headlines for its recent doodles, including an interactive undersea-themed graphic honoring author Jules Verne, 17 holiday-themed doodles that progressed through two days in December, and a playable Pac-Man doodle that celebrated the anniversary of the video game’s creation. It came as some surprise, then, that the Houdini doodle was little more than a static image. But a gaming expert in San Narciso County says that everyone in the United States missed the joke -- that a clever attempt to reveal the secret of the poster, essentially allowing “Houdini to escape,” would have caused the image to animate.

Houdini, the Man and His Legacy
Houdini was born as Erich Weiss in Budapest, Hungary, in 1874. His family emigrated from Europe to Wisconsin shortly thereafter. Houdini, by the age of 10, had already established himself as a circus act, but he gained notoriety for his elaborate escapes, in which he was able to extricate himself from all manner of handcuffs, shackles, chains, and straightjackets.

Perhaps his most famous stunt was the Chinese Water Torture Cell. The act involved Houdini escaping from a water tank while suspended upside down and restrained. The trick required him to hold his breath for three minutes. The exact construction of Houdini’s torture cell and the method of his escape remain a mystery.

Houdini was also vitally important in debunking false psychics, mediums, and other charlatans who bilked people out of money for the spurious promises of supernatural contact. Modern skeptics such as James Randi continue Houdini’s tradition today through similar feats.

Freeing Houdini from the Doodle
Said Meyrian Dofskelge, a business analyst who specializes in the electronic gaming industry, “I was surprised to learn that no one had unlocked the secret of the Houdini Doodle, attempted to, or even thought to try. Google’s a clever company. It’s created some ingenious and intriguing doodles to generate traffic. In fact, it received a patent for its doodles just as the Houdini graphic was introduced. Of course there was something more beneath the surface of the picture, just as there was always something more to Houdini.”

Dofskelge claimed that when he first saw the doodle on Thursday, he immediately began experimenting with it.

“Harry Houdini wasn’t just a marketing vehicle, as the doodle seems to imply by paying homage to his advertisements,” Dofskelge continued. “He was first and foremost a master of illusion and escape. He spared no expense to pull off some of history’s most fascinating tricks. He hid scraps of metal under calluses on his body to pick locks. He once had his men break into an undertaker’s parlor, after requesting the strongest coffin to be built for an escape, just to replace one of the boards. It seemed obvious to me that Google was inviting users to perform the same magical feat -- to find the key that would unlock the doodle so that Houdini could be freed. But it must have been too subtle.”

Dofskelge, smiling coyly, refused to explain how he solved the puzzle. “Like any good magician, I keep my secrets,” he said.

The only clues he would reveal were that clicking on the doodle directly would lead to a dead end -- merely generating a search for Houdini -- and that to figure out how a magician’s illusions operate, one must “inspect all the elements inherent in the environment.”

“Magic is, at its core, the art of distraction,” Dofskelge mused. “Sometimes it’s done with smoke and mirrors, sometimes with the lights out. Sometimes messages are written in invisible ink. That’s all I’m willing to say on the subject.”

According to Dofskelge, once the doodle is unlocked, an HTML 5 animation depicts Houdini upside down, with his wrists chained together. After a few seconds of writhing around the doodle and squirming, Houdini breaks the chains and settles in the lower right hand corner of the image, as it appears in its static form. As an added bonus, if users with Google accounts are logged in, Houdini causes a message to appear beneath the doodle, which features the user’s name and information specific to his or her online activity. However, Dofskelge admitted this aspect of the animation was “notably creepy and a bit unsettling.”

(c) 2011. All stories are works of satire and parody.

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