Illusions of Grandeur : Why are all those people squinting at wild patterns on cards and books? The better to see Magic Eye’s camouflaged 3-D creations, of course. But you’ve got to have patience--and healthy depth perception.

Share via
Los Angeles Times

Every day at lunch, gaggles of corporate types leave their Downtown high-rises hoping to see a vision or two.

Decked out in shoulder pads and pin-striped suits, they swarm the card racks at Mr. G’s Expressions, where they cross their eyes for hours and exclaim that they’ve seen bullfrogs, fish and even, on occasion, Elvis.

“Sometimes we just make fun of them because they have these cards stuck up to their noses for half an hour,” says Patty Aleman, manager of the gift shop at Seventh Market Place.


They’re staring at stereograms, an optical oddity that once entertained the court of Queen Victoria and has re-emerged in the computer age as a multimillion-dollar global phenomenon.

The sun never sets on this fad’s formidable empire. Through Magic Eye, by far the most popular line of stereogram products, images have been embossed on everything from Pepsi cans in the United Kingdom to rice-paper fans in Japan. “Magic Eye” and “Magic Eye II”--hard-bound, glossy coffee-table books full of the camouflaged 3-D creations--reside comfortably on the New York Times bestseller list and have inspired a host of imitators.

The folks at Magic Eye even have a ‘90s version of the Babe Ruth story.

Mark Gregorek, the marketer chiefly responsible for its success, says he knows of a Massachusetts boy who sliced his foot in a lawn mower accident. While at the hospital, he found that staring at hidden images of sea gulls and flowers helped ease his pain.

“He calls it his healing book,” says Gregorek, who runs the marketing firm Blue Moon in Ramsey, N.J. “It’s really mystical.”

And for some, it’s really mystifying.

“It’s a totem pole. It’s definitely a totem pole,” proclaims Fred Patton, 45, a manager at the nearby First Interstate Bank during a noontime sojourn to Mr. G’s. Searching for a card to send a friend who is leaving to work in Saudi Arabia, Patton settled on a collage of world flags. Far from a totem pole, the hidden image turned out to be the United Nations building.

“I just got contacts,” Patton says a little sheepishly. “I usually get these right away.”

On the surface, the waves of lines and color fit somewhere between abstract Expressionism and the opening credits to “Outer Limits.” But for those possessing patience and healthy depth perception, the images create the sensation of moving from two dimensions into three.


At least, that’s what’s supposed to happen.

Beyond the 5% with visual impairments such as strabismus and astigmatism, about half the population can’t see the images because of mental blocks, Gregorek says.

Children seem to have the easiest time. Used to staring at the wallpaper as they go to sleep or daydreaming as they skip over cracks in the sidewalk, kids have the kind of skewed visual sense that Magic Eye demands, its creators say.

Photographers, artists and graphic designers lead that portion of the population who just don’t get it, Gregorek says. “It’s understandable. They are more or less locked in to their own way of seeing the world.”

Magic Eye is the brainchild of hippie-turned-entrepreneur Tom Baccei, 50, who says he now makes more money than “a good shortstop.”

“The dots have been very, very good to me,” he acknowledges.

A spirit of inspired lunacy pervades Baccei’s N.E. Thing Enterprises, the 10-person Bedford, Mass., company where Magic Eye stereograms are created for everything from Brookville neckties to newspaper comics pages.

When Cheerios executives visited the company to discuss an upcoming promotion, computer designers surprised them with a subliminal joke. A stereogram on the front of a box pictured a bowl of cereal which, upon prolonged staring, revealed the honey-nut O’s in the form of the words “Buy me.”


“They said ‘Oh, no, we can’t do that,’ ” Baccei recalls.

Of course, Baccei didn’t so much invent stereograms as stumble upon a curiosity that has lingered for more than a century.

The public’s fascination with 3-D images started long before audiences adorned the famous green-and-red glasses for such B-movies as “House of Wax.”

Invented by Sir Charles Wheatstone in 1838, the pictures became a favorite plaything of the elite, amusing the likes of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, according to “Stereogram” (Cadence Books, 1994), a collection of essays on the subject. Dali, Duchamp and Escher also became aficionados of the illusions--dual images that, when merged through a stereoscope, tricked the eye into seeing depth.

The technology lay dormant--of interest to a handful of ophthalmologists and trinket collectors--until 1959, when Dr. Bela Julesz, a cognitive psychologist at Bell Telephone Laboratories in New Jersey, used computers to make stereograms visible to the naked eye.

In their current form, the images could be a kaleidoscopic flashback from Tom Baccei’s psychedelic past. During the ‘70s, Baccei traversed the country in the Great Green Tortoise, part of the “underground” bus fleet that took free spirits from Boston to San Francisco.

In addition to stints as a blues musician and cabinetmaker, Baccei taught in an open classroom in Boston, where projects included producing a rock album and field trips to the ancient Indian ruins of Central America.


But as he approached 40, he realized that “alternative lifestyles wouldn’t make for a comfortable retirement.”

Now, Baccei says, the very attributes that caused him to rebel against the system have turned him into a good capitalist. “I’ve led a varied life,” he says. “Consequently, I’m really in touch with what the Everyman will like.”

In 1990 he saw a stereogram in an obscure electronics magazine. With a little high-tech wizardry of his own, Baccei created an ad for his electronics company in which he hid a number in a sea of computer-generated dots. The caption read: “Finding a bug in your computer is as easy as finding a number in the picture above. Once you find it, it jumps right out at you.”

The business started there. Baccei lived on mail orders and word-of-mouth until he met Gregorek, who had been turned on to the images by a friend who faxed a work of Baccei’s that appeared in an airline magazine.

But early attempts to sell American executives on the idea fell victim to timeworn images of the national attention span--you know, basically a Chihuahua on Vivarin.

“They said ‘Mark, I got 30 microseconds to sell this. Can’t you make it easier?” Gregorek recalls. “They sold the public short.”


So they contracted with a toy company in Japan, where businessmen were already addicted to the images they saw in America’s in-flight magazines. An appearance on “Narahudo,” a TV show about global oddities, cemented its popularity in the land of the rising sun.

American marketers were forced to eat their words. The public was ready for a fad that didn’t offer immediate gratification.

Global revenue for Magic Eye now exceeds $100 million, Gregorek and Baccei say, with the books alone selling more than 4 million copies in the United States. In Germany, Der Spiegel magazine reports that “Magic Eye” and “Magic Eye II” are the biggest sellers of the past 30 years.

If the volumes of mail Magic Eye receives is any indication, the public remains eager for more. Sometimes, however, things get excessive.

One writer, characterized by Baccei as a “devil worshiper,” mailed in a rambling diatribe in which he linked the optical illusions to “alien crucifixions.” Baccei was concerned enough to call the writer’s hometown police department. Harmless, the cops told Baccei, but they agreed to check up on him.

“Well, they called back and told me that the guy had gotten much worse,” he recalls with a laugh. “They said, ‘He keeps running around the house and pointing to these pieces of paper with dots on them and claiming he sees frogs and trees.’ ”