Conventional theories of visual object recognition treat objects effectively as abstract patterns of image features. They do not explicitly represent objects as physical entities in the world, with physical properties such as three-dimensional shape, mass, stiffness, elasticity, surface friction, and so on. However, for many purposes, an object's physical existence is central to our ability to recognize it and think about it. This is certainly true for recognition via haptic perception, i.e., perceiving objects by touch, but even in the visual domain an object's physical properties may directly determine how it looks and thereby how we recognize it. Here we show how a physical object representation can allow the solution of video problems, like perceiving an object under a cloth, that are otherwise difficult to accomplish without extensive experience, and we provide behavioral and computational evidence that people can use such a representation.