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I hope this kind of question is welcome here.

A festival of science will take place in a few months in my university, and I would like to set up a simple but exciting escape room for people to discover scientific notions in a fun way.

Ideas on puzzles?

The main theme would be the light; do you know manual puzzles which are simple to setup and would fit (loosely) in this subject? Ideally the puzzles should be solved using some basic knowledge about the physics of light.

The puzzles should be safe for children, repeatable many times, understandable by the general public (after scientific explanation if necessary). Note that I have some budget to build some sort of large cubicle, or even decorate a whole room.

Some well-known tools for puzzles related to light:

  • UV flashlight to reveal hidden messages
  • (safe) laser pointers
  • objects' shadows

Ideas on the scenario?

EDIT: let me add that I am also very bad at finding a scenario that would:

  • make sense of the need for the group to escape
  • make sense of the limited time
  • make sense of the puzzles sitting around, waiting for a solution

... so any ideas on crafting a scenario around the puzzles would be great.

Technical issues

What size should the escape room take? I am worried about a room too small for having sufficient space for the people and the puzzles.

What time should it take and for how many people? Ten minutes would be the maximum time in order to allow many groups to try the escape room. But is this enough to solve puzzles?

Do you have experience in this kind of event? I welcome any general suggestions (organization, budget, technical problems).

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    $\begingroup$ Write your name or draw something or solve the haze only lseeing the mirror reflection of your pencil. $\endgroup$ – z100 Jul 1 '16 at 15:18
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    $\begingroup$ Whatever you do, make sure to send "us" some notice once the event is over, so that others can learn from your experiences as well. $\endgroup$ – BmyGuest Jul 5 '16 at 18:08
  • $\begingroup$ Based on the answers to this question, I can't wait for the first PuzzlingSECon. $\endgroup$ – Dan Russell Jul 5 '16 at 18:21
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I have no experience making escape rooms, so I can't help too much with the logistics or know if these ideas are practical.

Here are some puzzle ideas:

  • Use the science of color perception to hide a message in plain sight. Have a picture featuring lots of colored dots in a seemingly nonsense pattern. People to find a magenta gel, and when they put it over the light source, a code is revealed. The idea is that under a magenta light, the color pairs green/black, cyan/blue, yellow/red, and white/magenta become indistinguishable. If you're careful, you can have three distinct codes revealed using magenta, cyan and yellow filters, which would be cool if you had three combination locks whose colors corresponded to the filter you needed to see its code.

  • A laser maze, where they have to rotate mirrors to get a laser to shine on a certain place. Having a cheap fog machine nearby would reveal the full path of the laser, and be much more fun. Solving the maze causes the light to shine on a particular place on a wall, perhaps a wall with many lock combinations where only the one which is pointed at is correct.

  • Using refraction: a laser is shining through a glass club, barely missing a mirror. Filling the cup with water causes the beam to bend, so the laser hits a mirror and points out an interesting message.

  • Using polarized light: Make a grid of squares, where each square is a piece of polarizing film. Some of the squares are turned 90 degrees relative to the others, spelling out a message. This message is invisible under plain light, but when looked at through polarized sunglasses (which you can make yourself by attaching two pieces of the polarized film to empty frames), the rotated squares will appear black while the unrotated ones are still transparent. I got the idea from this how-to page.

None of these puzzles are that hard from a puzzling point of view, so they should be able to be done in 10 min time, especially if you have someone offer hints at the 5 min mark. Their main point is how they have surprising reveals and only work because of the science of light.

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  • $\begingroup$ These are good ideas indeed. I like especially the first one, because colors are not too hard to explain. Polarisation is good too, and we do explain it in the festival in fact. But it might be a bit redundant with the coloured panel. $\endgroup$ – fffred Jul 1 '16 at 17:44
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    $\begingroup$ With the colours you do have to be prepared to explain why colour-blindness means that some people can solve some parts without using filters. $\endgroup$ – Peter Taylor Jul 1 '16 at 18:56
  • $\begingroup$ Also: There are (good) Apps for mobiles with camera which "mimic" the sensation of being colour blind. I've used them for one of my puzzles here on site. $\endgroup$ – BmyGuest Jul 1 '16 at 19:02
  • $\begingroup$ I finally accepted this answer as the most complete, but any ideas on the "plot" are welcome. $\endgroup$ – fffred Jul 5 '16 at 13:18
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Mike Earnest's answer gives one option for using mirrors. A related one is a classic computer programming challenge. It has several variants, but the key idea is that you're given a black box which has holes along the edges and you're told that it contains mirrors. By pointing a laser into the holes and seeing which hole it emerges from, you have to deduce the locations of the mirrors. A number of the TVTropes Lights and Mirrors category relate to variants on this. It can be adapted for an escape room by numbering the possible locations of the mirrors and generating a code.

Sticking with the mirror theme, there's a commercially available puzzle which is essentially a jigsaw with mirrors. You might be able to construct a puzzle along the same principles but 2x2 rather than 3x3 to keep it simple enough for children to solve rapidly.

Possibly too basic to count as a puzzle, but I remember a very cool demonstration from the waves area of a science museum which used a piece of colourless transparent plastic which could be lowered into a bath of colourless mineral oil. In air the plastic was clearly visible, but in the mineral oil it disappeared because the speed of light in the two materials was the same and so there was no refraction at the interface. Unfortunately I don't know precisely which plastic and which oil were used.

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    $\begingroup$ Thanks for the mirrors ideas. We already have the "disappearing" material: pyrex glass into glycerin works perfectly. Although we do not use it as a puzzle. $\endgroup$ – fffred Jul 1 '16 at 19:55
  • $\begingroup$ @fffred You could use the pyrex as a clue for the escape room and then hide it in some mineral oil? Although, people would probably get their hands a bit messy. $\endgroup$ – jpmc26 Jul 3 '16 at 6:51
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Not sure if this'll be doable in the 10 minutes (with all the other things going on) but you can do an optics puzzle that requires them to place convex/concave lenses in certain positions/orders that would focus a projection to obtain a hidden message of some sort.

Also, maybe you can do codes hidden in Moire patterns. That stuffs pretty trippy and cool!

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You could add a light detector and combine it with a laser. Use some mirrors and create a graph near the floor of the room. If any member touches the light, an alarm is fired. They would need some kind of smoke or dust (talcum powder or similar) in order to see the light.

This could lead to explain that we only see light when it is directed our eyes and maybe the photo-electric effect.

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A "bomb" (some easy electronic stuff with switches and other things) and they have to find out how it works in order to defuse it.

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a polarisation sensing combination lock opened by the right stack of optically active sheets (eg: perspex)

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You have mentioned shadows yourself.

One idea would be a construct of some 3D objects on sticks such that they can be rotated 360 degree on those sticks (i.e. the sticks can rotate). These objects are illuminated from a fixed position by a lamp, casting a shadow on the wall / some white cloth.

Rotating the objects changes the cast shadow and only in a specific rotation situation does the shadow give something meaningful, like a code word or such.

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Just to contribute to the scenario:

A mad scientist, Mr. Evil, may be trying to destroy the world, and he's found some guinea pigs to test his new on. Participants need to:

  • Disarm the weapon
  • Disarm the security
  • Unlock the door

The weapon could be a "poisonous" gas or a bomb that they "disarm" through chemistry. The security may be playing with a laser and mirrors and possibly prisms. Codes/combinations to locks on the door can be encoded through various means.

Reasoning for set up could be Mr. Evil wants to see if they can disarm the bomb; thus the extra chemistry stuff. Additional mirrors or prisms could be included as extraneous stuff in the chemistry/lab setup or as part of the laser puzzle—maybe they need to unlock/open a container to get to the "security grid" for their room.

The helper could be another scientist Mr. Evil has captured to help concoct his evil weapons. This scientist has secretly hacked the comms and has tried to help the previous guinea pigs—and now these participants—escape.

I can't really speak to the logistics of your question, and you already have great puzzles in the other answers.

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A scenario suggestion

The group are SciFi austronauts who find themselves on an alien spacecraft.

They beamed there for investigation and found themselves trapped, as the doors of the bridge room apparently will not open. However, the ship has been abandomed and is drifting towards a catastrophic collision, so the group has to find answers to "escape" in time. (Getting 'out of the room' = 'get back to the beamer-station' or = 'activate ship maneauver to avoid collision'. )

The spacecraft belongs to a race of "light-atuned" aliens who naturally have built their control devices on properties of lights. This explains why there are so many "odd" devices (= puzzles).

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