Through the Looking Glass: A Tour of the Mirror That’s One of TIME’s Favorite Inventions

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We all have an intimate relationship with our bathroom mirrors. No other fixture in our house stares back at us first thing in the morning, when we’re certainly not looking our best. But what if the bathroom mirror could talk back? The New York Times Company’s Research & Development Lab has created a mirror with a brain—it shows not only your reflection but also news, weather and even your Twitter feed.

Called the “magic mirror,” it recognizes you and respond to your voice commands—an innovation that earned it a spot on TIME’s list of the year’s 50 best inventions (available for subscribers here). I had a chance to visit creative technologist Brian House at the Research & Development Lab to see if this magic mirror could cast a spell over me.

(MORE: The Future of Television: Kinect vs. Siri)

The average bathroom-goer would have no idea he or she is standing in front of such an intelligent mirror: it looks like the plain, white-rimmed reflective glass that might hang above your sink, save for the camera eye peering out from the left side and the microphone perched on its crown. Its Microsoft Kinect sensor scans your face and pairs it to any other time it’s seen you. Address it as “Mirror” and it’s ready to answer your commands. It can deliver daily news and weather details, as you’d expect from a mirror designed by a major media outlet. Swipe through the morning’s headlines before you’ve even finished doing your hair. And it might be rather difficult to read an entire article while you shave, so with a quick swipe of your wrist, the mirror can call up video clips from the Times’ website for an easier glimpse at the news. The mirror is stellar at playing videos, as there’s an actual computer behind the glass. But it can also interface with the person reflected in it, spouting off your daily calendar and checking your social feeds. And since it can see what you’re wearing, it can offer fashion advice. The mirror culled its fashion sources to pair me with a tie that was a better match for my shirt than the one I was wearing – and subtly tried to get me to purchase it right then and there. If I’d wanted to make the purchase, the mirror would have connected to my phone via Bluetooth and grabbed my credit card info from a payment app like Google Wallet. This could be dangerous for those of us who are most suggestible first thing in the morning.

But the mirror’s finest and most comprehensive feature is the way it displays your health data. Its sill contains a radio-frequency tag reader that can scan and detect your medicine, calling up the dosage instructions on-screen (ideal for fading eyes), telling you how many days are left in your prescription, and even pinging your pharmacy for a refill. It can liaise with other devices, including a sleep monitor and a pedometer to show your slumber habits and daily activity in graph form, providing a charted look at your movement that such devices don’t typically offer. If our lives are too sedentary—or our ties too loud—perhaps this mirror can inspire action. At the very least, it can get us to have a conversation with ourselves.

LIST: TIME’s Tech Buyer’s Guide 2011

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