Here's Looking At You From John Walter's perspective, too many of us have our self-image backward. He hopes his 'True Mirror' will fix that.


NEW YORK -- Do you know who you are? What you really look like? Does your mirror tell the truth?

Of course it doesn't. It conceals things by distorting them. Hold a newspaper up to a mirror. Can you read it? Not unless you can read backward.

Hold up your watch. Can you tell the time? Not unless your eyes and mind can effortlessly reverse the numbers to counter the mirror's effect. Mirrors do elfin things like this. They obscure the plain, encode the clear.

Most people don't think about it much. John Walter does.

Walter is a thin man with wakeful eyes and a quiet voice full of patience. For about 20 years now he has been preoccupied with the effects common mirrors have on people's sense of self-identity. It has encouraged him to formulate some eccentric theories -- one about what your hair part means -- and to invent a device to counter the mendacity of mirrors.

He calls his invention the "True Mirror." Not only does his mirror reflect back a page of text that is perfectly intelligible, it introduces you to someone you rarely encounter: yourself. It's not the self you shave every morning, or apply makeup to. It's the self everybody else sees. It is the face your wife kisses, your girlfriend slaps, the face you must, at some point in your life, turn to the music.

Mirror, mirror

That there is a difference between your mirror image and the real you may be something you are already aware of. Maybe you don't care. After all, your real image is knowable. It is revealed in photographs or on video. But for most people, it is the mirror that tells them each day who they are, what they look like. And it lies to them.

Walter is a 39-year-old New Yorker, a computer scientist with a degree in physics who does consulting work. In his spare time he assembles the True Mirrors by hand. He and his 34-year-old sister, Catherine, a sometime movie actress who studied anthropology, operate out of a minute, dull apartment in the warren of the financial district in lower Manhattan. Currently they are looking for a storefront to open a shop; they are working with a New Jersey plastics company to find a way to industrialize production of their product.

They seem a very contemporary pair, bright and attractive, manifestly levelheaded -- except, perhaps, for that dubious business about the hair part.

But there is nothing dubious about the True Mirror, which is really two mirrors joined in a box at a perfect 90-degree angle. When one looks into the box, the reflected image is not only true, but three-dimensional.

The Walters are convinced their device is the first perfect realization of an idea that has been around for some time, frequently patented but never produced without flaws. John Walter discovered the first patent for the idea when he went to patent his own device, about seven years ago. It had been registered by a Catholic priest named John Joseph Hooker, who lived in Derby, England. Hooker intended to create "certain and useful Mirrors for Obtaining True or Positive Reflections." His patent was recorded Sept. 27, 1887.

But the Walters found no evidence that Hooker ever built his mirror. Nor have they seen any products that might have flowed from the 15 other patents for the device that have been registered over the years. Whatever, the idea is now in the public domain, and what the Walters' patent is for is the trademark name, True Mirror.

John Walter says he made about a hundred variations of the True Mirror before he got it right. The problem was a vexing

seam in the center of the image, where the two mirrors come together. He eradicated this by using high-quality optical glass, and placing the reflective material on the front of the glass instead of the back, where it is on conventional mirrors.

The Walters have been selling True Mirrors for about six years, by word of mouth mainly. Brian Connolly, a New Yorker, who publishes a magazine called Natural Health and Fitness, bought one and uses it for introspection. "I look into it for five or 10 minutes three or four times a week," he said. "It reveals parts of me I'm very unfamiliar with."

Mixed reactions

So far the Walters' marketing plan has been unaggressive. Mainly they display their mirror at street fairs. They have drawn interesting reactions.

"Some people love it. Some people hate it. Some people have even run away screaming," said John Walter. "Then there were people who said they didn't see any difference."

And to a few come painful moments of self-recognition.

Walter recalls a movie actress who took one look into the True Mirror and exclaimed that she finally understood why she was always getting cast in roles portraying "tough, hard-boiled women." Before that moment, she said, she never could understand why people would see her that way.

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