This story is part of our Weekend Reads series, where we highlight a story we love from the archives. It was originally published in issue #02 of Eye on Design magazine.
For a flash in the 1990s, Magic Eye, the world’s most famous—and infamously frustrating—optical illusion, was everywhere. Posters bearing the brightly colored op-art hung from the walls of Midwestern mall kiosks. Postcards filled gift store racks. Books with taglines like “A new way of looking at the world,” lined and then disappeared from store shelves as people snatched up more than 20 million copies of the series.
Magic Eye was something of a paradox: a deliberate graphic mess that relied on grids and precision to achieve its intended effect. The fact that it was so difficult to see the 3-D shape hiding behind the hypercolored patterns was a major part of its appeal. To find the secret image, people adopted a signature Magic Eye stance: bent forward, hands-on-hips, staring—dumbfounded—at the visual static in front of them. The others who crowded around (there were always others) passed along tips like an unsuccessful game of telephone—Cross your eyes. No, squint. Try relaxing. Click. Suddenly the image would appear. Every illusion is solvable, as long as you know how to look at it.
For a time, people were obsessed with the visual trickery of not being able to see what was directly in front of them. And then, just as quickly, they weren’t. “Fads have a predictable life,” says Tom Baccei, who would know better than anyone.
As the man behind Magic Eye, Baccei and his small team of designers orchestrated one of pop culture’s most bewildering whims, turning an obscure perceptual experiment into a publishing empire. To be honest, he finds the whole thing just as curious as you do. “It was the right place at the right time,” he said recently, speaking from his home in Vermont.
But in the more than 25 years since Magic Eye first hit bookstore shelves, the 74-year-old, self-styled retired hippie has come to learn a lot about what happens when you follow the unexpected bends in the road when they come your way. “Life is a real pinball machine,” he continued. “The most successful people understand that and they don’t try to force the game. They follow the bounces and try to keep ahead of them as much as they can.”
The story of Magic Eye begins at a technology company in a quiet office park outside of Boston. At the start of the ’90s, Baccei was working as the U.S. manager of Pentica Systems, a British company that sold in-circuit emulators, small devices that were used to debug early computers. At the time, Pentica was looking to boost sales in the United States for a product called the MIME in-circuit emulator, and it was up to Baccei to create an advertisement to run in a national trade magazine.
Baccei came up with a concept in which a mime would stand at the end of a conference table, his arm digitally altered to appear as if it were plugged into a series of wires that connected to a computer. “It was a play on the phrase ‘chairman of the board,’” he recalled, chuckling at his old idea. Baccei wrote the copy and hired a photographer and a pantomimist who would star in the shoot. As fate would have it, this mime, whose real name is Ron Labbe, was also a 3-D photography enthusiast and had brought along one of his stereo cameras. Baccei found himself intrigued by the idea of three-dimensional photographs. “I asked him where I could buy one of the cameras, and he pointed me to a magazine called Stereo World.” Baccei picked up the next issue, and that’s where he came across a story about autostereograms, a little-known perceptual concept invented in the 1970s by visual neuroscientist Christopher Tyler.
“Fads have a predictable life.”
Tyler had studied under Béla Julesz, a famed neuroscientist known for his research of the human brain’s visual system. In the 1960s, Julesz pioneered the concept of the random dot stereogram, a visual trick that shows how humans can achieve the sensation of stereopsis, or 3-D vision, by looking at a pair of 2D images filled with randomized, black-and-white dots.
In his experiments, Julesz placed these two images side by side, and then horizontally shifted a section of dots on one of the images. At a glance, the pair of images looked flat. But when viewed together with a stereoscope or by diverging the eyes, the section of shifted dots appeared to be floating in the foreground or background of the static dots. Julesz explained that this “cyclopean vision” was the result of the brain registering slight disparities in the images hitting each retina. Instead of viewing these images as separate, the brain fuses them together to create a single image and avoid the sensation of double vision. By intentionally shifting where an image is placed relative to its background, Julesz was able to trick the brain into seeing depth and create the illusion of 3-D geometry.
At the time, Julesz’s research was heralded as a massive advancement in the understanding of 3-D vision. But it wasn’t until the 1970s when Tyler figured out how to achieve the same 3-D effect with a single image that the roots of modern-day Magic Eye were formed.
Baccei was mesmerized by autostereograms as well as by the image that ran next to the story in Stereo World—a black-and-white rectangle filled with what looked like TV static, but revealed a series of random circles and dots when you diverged your eyes. “I thought it was the most compelling optical illusion I’d ever seen,” Baccei said. He was so compelled that he decided to create his own for Pentica’s next advertisement in Embedded Systems Engineering magazine.
On his old PC, Baccei designed an autostereogram with the phrase “M700” (the name of a Pentica product) obscured by an array of black-and-white dots. At the bottom of the ad, he urged readers to solve the puzzle, adding a disclaimer that to see the hidden message you had to diverge your eyes, as if you were looking at a faraway object. The ad was a hit—and not just with the engineering crowd. “I remember the fax machine going into overdrive,” recalls Bob Salitsky, who worked with Baccei at Pentica and later developed the software that helped Baccei make Magic Eye images at scale. “We started getting requests for all kinds of custom orders.”
“I thought it was the most compelling optical illusion I’d ever seen.”
Emboldened, Baccei started spending his hours outside of Pentica designing more of what he called “gaze toys,” or autostereograms with simple hidden images in the background. It was around this time, in 1991, when Baccei met Cheri Smith, a freelance artist who was working at ImageAbility, a computer graphics company outside of Boston, training clients to use its sophisticated 3-D, animation, and computer graphics workstations. As Smith remembers it, Baccei had seen her artwork in the office’s hallways while he was there on business, and asked who had made it.
Baccei had been using clip art in the backgrounds of his autostereograms and was interested in improving the aesthetics of his gaze toys, but he had no artistic background. He showed Smith an example of his autostereogram, and she was struck by its potential. “I told him, ‘This could be really beautiful artwork,’” she recalled recently. “He said, ‘You really think so?’ We then enthusiastically started to discuss how we could combine our skills to create more complex and beautiful 3-D images.”
Not long after meeting, Baccei and Smith designed another autostereogram advertisement—this time with a hidden airplane—which ran in American Airlines’ inflight magazine, American Way. Baccei started getting calls mid-flight from flight attendants asking for the answer. “They were giving away bottles of champagne to the first person who could identify what was in the picture,” he said.
Soon after placing the ad in American Way, Baccei says he was jolted awake in the middle of the night with an epiphany. “I realized I was selling the wrong thing. People wanted more autostereograms, and they’d buy it.” Baccei mortgaged his house, and with the help of Smith started Magic Eye as a sub-company under one of his existing businesses, N.E. Thing Enterprises.
In 1991, N.E. Thing Enterprises began working with Tenyo Co., Ltd, a Japanese company know for selling an array of magic products. This relationship led to the christening of Magic Eye. “We called it Magic Eye because it translated well to Japanese—and because it had ‘magic’ in the name,” Smith recalled. At the time, Tenyo was selling Magic Eye autostereogram posters, postcards, and other retail products. When the company released the first three Magic Eye books later that year, Magic Eye became an overnight sensation.
Soon distributors and publishers from around the world were contacting Magic Eye to license the work. One of those people was Mark Gregorek, a licensing agent from New Jersey who had first seen Baccei’s autostereograms, when a friend sent him a fax of the American Way ad. “I spent days staring at this stupid picture, and I couldn’t see anything,” Gregorek recalled. “It was driving me nuts.” Then one day he was working in his home office and had the piece of paper in one hand while he glanced out the window at his daughter in the backyard at the same time. “I wasn’t looking at the piece of paper in front of me; I was looking past it to the yard,” he said. “And that’s when I saw the airplane appear. It was the coolest thing I had ever seen in my life.”
The next day, Gregorek called up Baccei and told him that he wanted to make him rich.
By 1993, Baccei and Smith had set up a small business with a handful of employees in Massachusetts, and Gregorek (who is no longer affiliated with Magic Eye) had secured Magic Eye a deal with the publisher Andrews McMeel to publish its first book in the U.S. A few of those employees were designers who helped Baccei and Smith translate Tyler’s esoteric optical illusion into the kind of colorful, attention-grabbing images that would sell lots of books.
A year or so prior, Baccei had enlisted Bob Salitsky, a programmer from his time at Pentica, to assist him in creating a more advanced software program that could automate part of the painstaking process of making autostereograms. Instead of using random black-and-white dots in their autostereograms like Julesz and Tyler, Salitsky’s enhancements to the software allowed Magic Eye designers to make images with something called “Salitsky Dots”—colorful, asymmetrical blobs whose position was calculated to render the hidden image slightly sharper than it would otherwise be.
“When you see it in 3-D, it puts you in an altered state.”
To make a Magic Eye autostereogram, the designers would first decide what shape to hide in the background of the image. Simple objects with defined edges like cars, sailboats, and certain animals, worked best. They’d then build a greyscale version of the shape, which allowed the program to assign depth values to its outline. Lighter areas signified pixels that were closer; darker areas were for pixels farther away. This depth map is what pops out when you look at Magic Eye just right.
Next, the designers would create something called a starter strip, a vertical column filled with a colorful pattern that repeats over the hidden 3-D image like camouflage. Salitsky’s software combined the 2-D pattern with the greyscale depth map by shifting each patterned strip horizontally depending on the depth information in the 3-D image. To make a 3-D shape appear closer, the software would repeat the starter pattern in nearer intervals; to make part of the shape seem farther away, they’d repeat it in greater distances. “When you do this properly, the repeating pattern overlaps, giving each eye different depth cues that we have embedded into the image, tricking your brain into seeing the intended 3-D illusion,” Smith explains.
Most people don’t think of Magic Eye an exercise in considered graphic design, but that’s exactly what it is. Its gift shop roots make it easy to overlook its place in the long lineage of perceptual psychology tricks that have helped researchers make sense of the brain’s most confounding habits. “When you stare at something and it’s just pattern, and then suddenly you’re seeing something that’s not there, but it is there—that’s magical,” said Labbe, the mime who went on to work at Magic Eye as an artist in the mid-’90s and now owns a company called Studio 3D.
To Smith, the magic of Magic Eye goes well beyond the initial “ah-ha” moment. For some people, she adds, it’s almost like an addiction. “When you see it in 3-D, it puts you in an altered state,” she says. “It increases your alpha waves and makes you feel happy.”
Its “drug-like” draw might explain why the first Magic Eye book sold out immediately. Baccei recalled getting a call from his publisher soon after the 1993 launch, telling him the original 30,000-book run was gone. “Within 24 hours they’d ordered a print run of 500,000 copies,” he said.
The fad caught fire, and Magic Eye had a head start. For more than a year, he and Smith worked fifteen-hour days, seven days a week, cranking out images for licensees like Disney, Looney Tunes, and even eye doctors, who wanted to latch on to the trend. There was a sense of urgency, if only because Baccei believed this was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. “Tom and I both knew this wasn’t going to last forever,” Gregorek said.
They were only partially right. By 1995, Magic Eye’s retail sales started to slow. What had once been a booming industry with posters selling for $25 apiece was turning into an overrun market where optical illusion posters could be bought for less than $5 at department stores. Using a mathematical analysis called an accumulative S-curve, Baccei calculated that Magic Eye had, indeed, reached its peak, and it was now on the downward slope. “It showed that the returns were diminishing at such a rate that the end was in sight,” he said. People were moving on to Beanie Babies, Furbies, and Tamagotchi. Or maybe they were getting headaches from too much Magic Eye. Either way, Baccei decided to sell his majority portion of the company to Smith and his other employee Andy Paraskevas, who officially renamed the company to Magic Eye in 1996. Today, Smith still runs the shop out of a little office in Provincetown, Massachusetts.
For Smith, Magic Eye is still very much alive, even if the initial fervor has died down. She and her small team have turned Magic Eye into a creative agency of sorts, where they make custom work for companies who want advertisements, posters, and products emblazoned with Magic Eye’s distinct brand of visual chaos. They’re currently working on a 25th anniversary edition of a Magic Eye book, and recently made a poster for Steven Spielberg’s Ready Player One.
Smith attributes Magic Eye’s continued existence to the quality of the company’s autostereogram artwork, though even she acknowledges the importance of nostalgia in keeping the company alive. Appropriately, Magic Eye’s website is like taking a visual trip back to the 1990s—all low-res visuals and animated clip art. At the bottom of the page, a disclaimer reads: “WELCOME TO the Home Page for Magic Eye Inc., producers of the patented Magic Eye 3-D images that ignited the world-wide 3-D craze of the 90s.”
Now, 25 years later, the 3-D craze has turned into something quieter and smaller but there’s still something entrancing about staring at the hypercolored static, searching for something you can’t see but know is there. As satisfying as it is to best a trick, there’s a perverse pleasure in trying, and failing, to bring something hidden into view.
This story originally ran in issue #02 of Eye on Design magazine. Pick up a copy to see more exclusive images.