When Magic Eye Pictures Ruled the World—and Frustrated Millions of People

Magic Eye illusions continue to captivate.
Magic Eye illusions continue to captivate. / © Magic Eye Inc

In 1994, Magic Eye creators Tom Baccei and Cheri Smith welcomed executives from General Mills to the offices of their N.E. Thing Enterprises company, where Baccei led them to a mock-up cereal advertisement they had put together. The board depicted a bowl of cereal and a random pattern of colors. When their eyes relaxed, the executives were able to make out the “hidden” message in the bowl: BUY ME.

“Oh, no, we can’t do that,” one executive said.

Baccei thought it was funny. By that point, their company needed no subliminal messaging in order to be successful. Sales of products featuring the wildly popular Magic Eye illustrations—which most often appeared to be two-dimensional abstract images until the viewer’s brain “switched” and perceived it as a three-dimensional image—were set to hit $100 million. Three Magic Eye books were on the New York Times bestseller list. Posters, coffee mugs, greeting cards, games, and postcards were emblazoned with the optical effect. Soon, they’d be on boxes of Apple Cinnamon Cheerios, too. Baccei and Smith knew they had started a worldwide 3D fad.

The Magic Eye 3D illusions were based on principles that stretched as far back as 1828, when English physicist Sir Charles Wheatstone invented a device called the stereoscope that could merge two photographs together to create the illusion of depth. This invention amused royalty like Queen Victoria and Prince Albert. In 1959, a cognitive psychologist named Béla Julesz was able to take this concept a step further and created the first black-and-white random-dot stereogram, and make them visible to the naked eye. To achieve this, Julesz created one image of uniform, randomly distributed dots. One circular space would be shifted slightly in a second image. When viewed side-by-side, a circle appeared to “float” above the background. Julesz proved depth perception was a function of the brain, not the eye.

An early Magic Eye 3D illusion.
An early Magic Eye 3D illusion. / © Magic Eye Inc

This stereopsis, or 3D effect, works because the brain essentially marries the two of them together to avoid experiencing double vision. Further work in the 1970s, by visual neuroscientist Christopher Tyler and computer programmer Maureen Clarke, condensed the illusion to a single image or autostereogram. But it would be Baccei and Smith who would turn this clever sleight of sight into a national phenomenon—further advancing autostereograms by adding complex hidden 3D models emerging from colorful artwork.

In the 1970s, Baccei was a bus driver for Green Tortoise, a purported “hippie” transportation company. He eventually moved on to work for Pentica Systems, a computer hardware company located just outside of Boston, Massachusetts. There, Baccei was tasked with advertising a MIME in-circuit emulator, which helped debug computer systems. Perhaps inevitably, he hired a mime for the ad.

The performer, Ron Labbe, happened to be a 3D photography enthusiast and brought along a stereo camera. When Baccei asked where he could get more information about the hobby, Labbe directed him to Stereo World magazine. There, Baccei saw one of the single image random dot stereograms and was amused by the visual trick. While it appeared to be nothing more than television static, focusing on it revealed circles and dots.

He decided to design one for Pentica, which “hid” the model number of a new product in the dotted image and prompted readers to contact them for a prize if they could see it. The ad became so popular that readers tore the page out of the magazine and pinned it up in offices or faxed it to associates.

Baccei shared a stereogram from Stereo World magazine with Smith, an award-winning computer artist and animator who was also a 3D photography enthusiast. Baccei had been calling the stereograms he was experimenting with “Gaze Toys,” but Smith saw the potential of creating colorful artwork and re-branding the invention under a more suitable commercial name. They partnered to create even more complex 3D illusions on high-end computers, instead of the generic clip art Baccei had been using.

A Pentica co-worker named Bob Salitsky was able to refine the dots for a sharper image. This improvement was patented. Look at a picture of some tropical fish, for example, and a fish tank would appear. By 1991, Baccei and Smith were working on a start-up 3D illusion company, which would operate under Baccei’s N.E. Thing Enterprises computer cable company, and were taking assignments for the illustrations. One of the illusions appeared in the American Airlines magazine American Way, where it caught the eye of a Japanese businessman from the company Tenyo Co. Limited. Soon, Baccei and Smith were working with Tenyo on a series of books and other products.

Tenyo was a popular distributor of magic tricks and products. They suggested the name “Magic Eyes” be used for these new 3D products they would display and sell in stores next to their existing magic products. Within weeks Magic Eyes products became a huge fad in Japan. “Magic Eyes” was too common a name to register as a trade name in the U.S., so “Magic Eye” was used instead.

Magic Eye: A new Way of Looking at the World
The first Magic Eye book. / © Magic Eye Inc

That in-flight image also caught the attention of Mark Gregorek, a licensing agent who approached Baccei and Smith. He was excited about the incredible potential for partnering with other companies to create more Magic Eye content. Baccei and Smith had been searching for a U.S. licensing agent, and Baccei told Gregorek that “the first agent to secure a great publishing deal will be hired.” Gregorek was the first to secure a deal with book publisher Andrews McMeel in 1993, so he was hired. Magic Eye was positioned to take off in America, though it’s not likely anyone anticipated what happened next.

After an initial 30,000 print run of the $12.95 Magic Eye: A New Way of Looking at the World book (a.k.a. Magic Eye I) sold out, Andrews McMeel distributed 500,000 more copies. Magic Eye I, Magic Eye II, and Magic Eye III became bestsellers and appeared on the New York Times Bestseller List for a combined 73 weeks. N.E. Thing Enterprises—which officially changed its name to Magic Eye Inc, in 1996 after Baccei left the company—made deals with many other companies for postcards, posters, a syndicated comic strip, and 20 million boxes of cereal. Many mall kiosks began selling Magic Eye posters. Kiosks selling 3D posters were actually started by a rival poster company named NVision Grafix. Both Magic Eye and NVision had scores of people staring intently at their 3D illusion posters. If one member of the group suddenly “got it,” the others would continue glaring in frustration. Those who couldn’t see the hidden image—which, by one estimate, was initially up to 50 percent of people—were coached to put their nose close to the surface but have their eyes aimed further away. By slowly moving away from the poster, an illusion of surprising depth would appear. Magic Eye and NVision posters became a social obsession.

As revenues surpassed $100 million, Baccei knew that he couldn’t hold everyone’s attention forever. Like the Pet Rock, the Hula Hoop, and dozens of other fads, consumers would eventually have their attention diverted elsewhere. There were also the inevitable poster knock-offs, which sold for less than $5 for a poster compared to an official Magic Eye or NVision offering for $25.

With poster sales declined in 1995, Baccei sold his portion of Magic Eye to partner Smith and artist Andy Paraskevas. The company was renamed Magic Eye Inc. and sales and licensing were brought in-house.

The new Magic Eye duo immediately changed their focus to other product lines, soon releasing Magic Eye: The Amazing Spider-Man book with Warner Bros. Consumer Products. Other products included jigsaw puzzles, boxed valentines, wall calendars, and the continuation of a syndicated Magic Eye Image of the Week.

Magic Eye 25th Anniversary Book
The Magic Eye 25th Anniversary Book. / © Magic Eye Inc

In 1999, Paraskevas sold his portion of the business to Smith, who then worked with Tenyo to create a Magic Eye book titled Miru Miru Magu Yokunaru Magic Eye. The content focused on viewing Magic Eye 3D illusions for vision improvement and became a phenomenon in Japan once more. A second vision improvement book was soon released. After this, Smith worked with Warner Bros. to eventually create four Harry Potter Magic Eye books, along with other Harry Potter Magic Eye products. She also released a U.S. version of a vision improvement book titled Magic Eye Beyond 3D: Improve Your Vision with co-author/optometrist Marc Grossman that included health research from a variety of specialists with Magic Eye illustrations to “practice” with.

Today, Smith continues to create books, the weekly Magic Eye syndication, and other products, including utilizing Magic Eye 3D illusions for commercial advertising purposes. Her most recent  books are The Magic Eye 25th Anniversary Book and Magic Eye: Have Fun in 3D. She plans to release her next book in 2025.

You can check out illusions on the Magic Eye website and Facebook page.

A version of this story ran in 2020; it has been updated for 2024 with input from Cheri Smith of Magic Eye.