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

In the 1990s, millions of people spent a lot of time staring at images like this one.
In the 1990s, millions of people spent a lot of time staring at images like this one.
Amazon

When Magic Eye creator Tom Baccei welcomed executives from General Mills to the offices of his N.E. Thing Enterprises company in 1994, he led them to a mock-up cereal advertisement he had his employees put together. The board depicted a bowl of cereal and an ill-defined series of dots. 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, his company needed no subliminal messaging in order to be successful. Sales of products featuring his wildly popular Magic Eye illustrations—which 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. Two Magic Eye books were on the New York Times bestseller list. Posters, coffee mugs, Hallmark cards, games, and postcards were emblazoned with the optical effect. Soon, they’d be on boxes of Apple Cinnamon Cheerios, too. Baccei knew they were all staring at a fad, but he was determined to make the most of it.

The Magic Eye images 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 images together to create the illusion of depth. The trick amused royalty like Queen Victoria and Prince Albert. In 1959, a cognitive psychologist named Béla Julesz was able to take these illustrations, known as single image random dot stereograms, 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.

This stereopsis, or 3D effect, works because the brain essentially marries the two of them together to avoid experiencing double vision. Further work by visual neuroscientist Christopher Tyler in the 1970s condensed the illusion to a single image. But it would be Baccei who would turn this clever sleight of sight into a national phenomenon.

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.

Believing he was on to something, Baccei partnered with graphic artist Cheri Smith, who helped him create more involved images on a computer instead of the generic clip art he had been using. A Pentica co-worker named Bob Salitsky was able to refine the dots for a sharper image. Look at a picture of some tropical fish, for example, and a fish tank would appear. By 1991, Baccei was working on his own start-up, N.E. Thing Enterprises, and taking assignments for the illustrations. One of the images appeared in the American Airlines magazine American Way, where it caught the eye of Japanese businessmen. Soon, Baccei was working with Tenyo Co. Limited on a series of books and posters. While Baccei called the pictures Stare-e-os, the Amazing 3D Gaze Toys, the Japanese sold the images under the name Magic Eye.

That in-flight image also caught the attention of Mark Gregorek, a licensing agent who approached Baccei and told him there was incredible potential for partnering with other companies to create more Magic Eye content. Gregorek secured a deal with book publisher Andrews McMeel in 1993 as well as a variety of other licensees. Magic Eye was positioned to take off in America, though it’s not likely anyone anticipated what happened next.

Magic Eye was licensed out for dozens of products, including calendars. Amazon

After an initial 30,000 print run of the $12.95 Magic Eye book collection sold out, Andrews McMeel distributed 500,000 more copies. Both Magic Eye and Magic Eye II became bestsellers. N.E. Thing Enterprises—which officially changed its name to Magic Eye in 1996—made deals with many other companies for postcards, posters, a syndicated comic strip, and 20 million boxes of cereal. Mall kiosks, which were actually the product of a rival company named NVision Grafix, saw scores of people staring intently at the stereogram images. If one member of the group suddenly “got it,” the others would continue glaring in frustration. Those who couldn’t see the image—which, by one estimate, was 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 the page away, an image of surprising depth would appear. Magic Eye and similar products 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 knock-offs, which might sell for as little as $5 for a poster compared to an official Magic Eye offering for $25. An attempt to humanize the pictures by having a corporate mascot, the wizard Wizzy Nodwig, failed to take off.

With business slowing in 1995, Baccei sold his portion of Magic Eye to graphic artist Smith and another partner, Andy Paraskevas. The company is still around, though it has refocused its attention on corporate clients who want to utilize the images for commercial purposes. You can check out images on their website, but Magic Eye cautions that the effect works best on the printed page.

Mental Floss's Three-Day Sale Includes Deals on Apple AirPods, Sony Wireless Headphones, and More

Apple
Apple

During this weekend's three-day sale on the Mental Floss Shop, you'll find deep discounts on products like AirPods, Martha Stewart’s bestselling pressure cooker, and more. Check out the best deals below.

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Apple

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Sony

For the listener who likes a traditional over-the-ear headphone, this set by Sony will give you all the same hands-free calling, extended battery power, and Bluetooth connectivity as their tiny earbud counterparts. They have a swivel folding design to make stashing them easy, a built-in microphone for voice commands and calls, and quality 1.18-inch dome drivers for dynamic sound quality.

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Sony

This Sony headphone model stands out for its extra bass and the 30 hours of battery life you get with each charge. And in between your favorite tracks, you can take hands-free calls and go seamlessly back into the music.

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4. Martha Stewart 8-quart Stainless-Steel Pressure Cooker; $65

Martha Stewart

If you’re thinking of taking the plunge and buying a new pressure cooker, this 8-quart model from Martha Stewart comes with 14 presets, a wire rack, a spoon, and a rice measuring cup to make delicious dinners using just one appliance.

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Jashen

If you're obsessive about cleanliness, it's time to lose the vacuum cord and opt for this untethered model from JASHEN. Touting a 4.3-star rating from Amazon, the JASHEN cordless vacuum features a brushless motor with strong suction, noise optimization, and a convenient wall mount for charging and storage.

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Evachill

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Gourmia

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Townew

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FenSens

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Noerden

Reusable water bottles are convenient and eco-friendly, but they’re super inconvenient to get inside to clean. This smart water bottle will clean itself with UV sterilization to eliminate 99.9 percent of viruses and bacteria. That’s what makes it clean, but the single-tap lid for temperature, hydration reminders, and an anti-leak functionality are what make it smart.

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Prices subject to change.

This article contains affiliate links to products selected by our editors. Mental Floss may receive a commission for purchases made through these links. If you haven't received your voucher or have a question about your order, contact the Mental Floss shop here.

Miami Sound Machine: Remembering Don Johnson's Music Career

Don Johnson and Barbra Streisand in September 1988.
Don Johnson and Barbra Streisand in September 1988.
Kevin Winter, Getty Images

Don Johnson had a problem. It was 1986, and Johnson was one of the hottest television stars of the era, starring as Miami cop Sonny Crockett on the hit NBC drama Miami Vice. Sporting pastel shirts and white suits, Johnson was a new breed of television authority figure. He had a gun, but he also had fashion sense.

Johnson's problem was not with the show, or with his shoulder pads, but the fact that he was beginning to speak about his music career and his debut album, Heartbeat. Already, Johnson was feeling the heat applied to actors who attempt to sing. It was made worse by the fact that Philip Michael Thomas, his co-star on Miami Vice, had also recorded an album, Living the Book of My Life, that had come and gone unceremoniously. Johnson wanted to be taken seriously as a singer. He wasn’t sure the media or his audience would let him try.

 

Before he had ever aspired to become an actor, Johnson was performing solos for choir anthems at the Baptist church in his small hometown of Galena, Missouri. The attention—and occasional quarter—he received, he later said, may have sparked his interest in becoming an entertainer. Impressing with a leading role in a production of West Side Story, he eventually won a drama scholarship to the University of Kansas and got a grant from the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco, which led him to Hollywood. From there he took on small roles, including one in 1975's Return to Macon County, which also featured Dickey Betts, guitarist for the Allman Brothers.

Johnson had always kept one eye on the music scene, using some of the proceeds from his acting jobs to pay for demo recordings. (He could sing, play guitar a little, and write.) With Betts, he co-wrote two songs, “Blind Love” and “Can’t Take It With You,” for the band’s 1979 album, Enlightened Rogues. Throughout the 1970s, he had also hung out with The Doors and befriended Frank Zappa, getting a self-admitted education in the hedonism of the music scene without actually appearing on stage.

Don Johnson and Philip Michael Thomas co-starred on Miami Vice for five seasons. Both also recorded albums.NBC Television/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Johnson filmed a number of failed television pilots before scoring Miami Vice in 1984. After the show was a certifiable hit, he was at a party with CBS Records head Walter Yetnikoff. The two began to discuss Johnson’s interest in music. Yetnikoff believed Johnson’s fame and ardent fan following could help make an album a hit. He signed Johnson, then 36, to a deal on the spot.

There were some obstacles. For one, Johnson had no band. To guide him through the process, he hired manager and record executive Danny Goldberg, who in turn enlisted Chas Sandford, a songwriter who had worked with Stevie Nicks and John Waite. Soon, a group of session players, including bassist Mark Leonard and keyboardist Bill Champlin, materialized. Johnson and Sandford began fielding pitches from songwriters, many of whom seemed too dependent on Johnson’s association with Miami Vice. Songs titled “Mr. Miami” and “Miami Don” were quickly discarded. Instead, Johnson pursued a contemporary rock playlist and got contributions from Tom Petty, Bob Seger, Willie Nelson, Stevie Ray Vaughan, and Dickey Betts. (Recording at Criteria studios in Miami, Johnson even roped in friend Whoopi Goldberg to appear on a track titled “Streetwise.”) Johnson himself wrote lyrics for “Heartbeat,” which was originally composed by drummer Curly Smith. It eventually became the title of the album.

With the help of media consultant Elliot Mintz, Johnson managed to avoid some of the baggage that accompanied actors recording albums by passing up Entertainment Tonight in favor of Rolling Stone and other media outlets that focused on music. He emphasized that music had run parallel to his acting career and charmed journalists by being self-effacing about his ambitions.

“People will say this [record] is bullsh*t and ‘the jerk ought to stay with what he does,’” Johnson told the Los Angeles Times. “But I’m someone who likes to take risks.”

"Heartbeat" quickly gained airplay on Top 40 radio stations; the song's popularity was bolstered by the fact that Johnson could actually sing. One writer for the Los Angeles Times played the album for people without telling them it was Johnson. All were impressed, then incredulous when they were told who they were listening to.

Johnson’s Miami Vice schedule made it nearly impossible to tour to support the album. Instead, he filmed a one-hour musical released on VHS that incorporated all 10 tracks from Heartbeat. (It also features an appearance by Giancarlo Esposito, who would go on to portray Gus Fring in Breaking Bad.) Most of the songs focused on love, with tracks like “Heartache Away,” “The Last Sound Love Makes,” and “Can’t Take Your Memory” showcasing Johnson’s vocal talents.

“Heartbeat” made it to number five on the Billboard Hot 100 chart in October 1986, and Johnson experienced virtually none of the scorn reserved for actors who dared to try something different. He even performed a duet with then-girlfriend Barbra Streisand, '"Till I Loved You," in 1988, and released a second album, Let It Roll, in 1989. Johnson later appeared on stage in 2007 as Nathan Detroit in Guys and Dolls. Mostly, however, he was content to keep his musical interests private.

Heartbeat was ultimately a respectable endeavor for Johnson, though he wasn’t quite able to completely divorce himself from the reality of being a television star. On some versions of the album’s cover, a tag line made that extremely clear. It read: “Don Johnson: The Star of Miami Vice.”