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.

A 2015 Magic Eye calendar is pictured
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.

13 Father's Day Gifts for Geeky Dads

Amazon/Otterbox/Toynk
Amazon/Otterbox/Toynk

When in doubt, you play the hits. Watches, flasks, and ties are all tried-and-true Father’s Day gifts—useful items bought en masse every June as the paternal holiday draws near. Here’s a list of goodies that put a geeky spin on those can’t-fail gifts. We’re talking Zelda flasks, wizard-shaped party mugs, and a timepiece inspired by BBC’s greatest sci-fi series, Doctor Who. Light the “dad” signal ‘cause it’s about to get nerdy!

1. Lord of the Rings Geeki Tikis (Set of Three); $76

'Lord of The Rings' themed tiki cups.
Toynk

If your dad’s equally crazy about outdoor shindigs and Tolkien’s Middle-earth, help him throw his own Lothlórien luau with these Tiki-style ceramic mugs shaped like icons from the Lord of the Rings saga. Gollum and Frodo’s drinkware doppelgängers each hold 14 ounces of liquid, while Gandalf the Grey’s holds 18—but a wizard never brags, right? Star Wars editions are also available.

Buy it: Toynk

2. Space Invaders Cufflinks; $9

'Space Invaders' cufflinks on Amazon
Fifty 50/Amazon

Arcade games come and arcade games go, but Space Invaders has withstood the test of time. Now Pops can bring those pixelated aliens to the boardroom—and look darn stylish doing it.

Buy it: Amazon

3. Legend of Zelda Flask; $18

A 'Legend of Zelda' flask
Toynk

Saving princesses is thirsty work. Shaped like an NES cartridge, this Zelda-themed flask boasts an 8-ounce holding capacity and comes with a reusable straw. Plus, it makes a fun little display item for gamer dads with man caves.

Buy it: Toynk

4. AT-AT Family Vacation Bag Tag; $12

An At-At baggage tag
ShopDisney

Widely considered one of the greatest movie sequels ever made, The Empire Strikes Back throws a powerful new threat at Luke Skywalker and the Rebellion: the AT-AT a.k.a. Imperial Walkers. Now your dad can mark his luggage with a personalized tag bearing the war machine’s likeness.

Buy it: ShopDisney

5. Flash Skinny Tie; $17

A skinny Flash-themed tie
Uyoung/Amazon

We’ll let you know if the Justice League starts selling new memberships, but here’s the next best thing. Available in a rainbow of super-heroic colors, this skinny necktie bears the Flash’s lightning bolt logo. Race on over to Amazon and pick one up today.

Buy it: Amazon

6. Captain America Shield Apron; $20

A Captain America themed apron
Toynk

Why let DC fans have all the fun? Daddy-o can channel his inner Steve Rogers when he flips burgers at your family’s Fourth of July BBQ. Measuring 31.5 inches long by 27.5 inches wide, this apron’s guaranteed to keep the cookout Hydra-free.

Buy it: Toynk

7. Doctor Who Vortex Manipulator LCD Leather Wristwatch; $35

A Doctor Who-themed watch
Toynk

At once classy and geeky, this digital timepiece lovingly recreates one of Doctor Who’s signature props. Unlike some of the gadgets worn on the long-running sci-fi series, it won’t require any fancy chronoplasm fuel.

Buy it: Toynk

8. Wonder Woman 3-Piece Grill Set; $21

Wonder Woman three-piece gill set
Toynk

At one point in her decades-long comic book career, this Amazon Princess found herself working at a fast food restaurant called Taco Whiz. Now grill cooks can pay tribute to the heroine with these high-quality, stainless steel utensils. The set’s comprised of wide-tipped tongs, a BBQ fork, and a spatula, with the latter boasting Wonder Woman’s insignia.

Buy it: Toynk

9. Harry Potter Toon Tumbler; $10

Glassware that's Harry Potter themed
Entertainment Earth

You can never have too many pint glasses—and this Father’s Day, dad can knock one back for the boy who lived. This piece of Potter glassware from PopFun has whimsy to spare. Now who’s up for some butterbeer?

Buy it: EntertainmentEarth

10. House Stark Men’s Wallet; $16

A Game of Thrones themed watch
Toynk

Winter’s no longer coming, but the Stark family's propensity for bold fashion choices can never die. Manufactured with both inside and outside pockets, this direwolf-inspired wallet is the perfect place to store your cards, cash, and ID.

Buy it: Toynk

11. Mr. Incredible “Incredible Dad” Mug, $15

An Incredibles themed mug
ShopDisney

Cue the brass music. Grabbing some coffee with a Pixar superhero sounds like an awesome—or dare we say, incredible?—way for your dad to start his day. Mom can join in the fun, too: Disney also sells a Mrs. Incredible version of the mug.

Buy it: ShopDisney

12. Star Wars phone cases from Otterbox; $46-$56

Star Wars phone cases from OtterBox.
Otterbox

If your dad’s looking for a phone case to show off his love of all things Star Wars, head to Otterbox. Whether he’s into the Dark Side with Darth Vader and Kylo Ren, the droids, Chewbacca, or Boba Fett, you’ll be able to find a phone case to fit his preference. The designs are available for both Samsung and Apple products, and you can check them all out here.

Buy it: Otterbox

13. 3D Puzzles; $50

3D Harry Potter puzzle from Amazon.
Wrebbit 3D

Help dad recreate some of his favorite fictional locations with these 3D puzzles from Wrebbit 3D. The real standouts are the 850-piece model of Hogwarts's Great Hall and the 910-piece version of Winterfell from Game of Thrones. If dad's tastes are more in line with public broadcasting, you could also pick him up an 890-piece Downton Abbey puzzle to bring a little upper-crust elegance to the homestead.

Buy it: Hogwarts (Amazon), Winterfell (Amazon), Downton Abbey (Amazon)

At Mental Floss, we only write about the products we love and want to share with our readers, so all products are chosen independently by our editors. Mental Floss has affiliate relationships with certain retailers and may receive a percentage of any sale made from the links on this page. Prices and availability are accurate as of the time of publication.

The Fur Trade: How the Care Bears Conquered the '80s

Care Bears were one of the great merchandising success stories of the 1980s.
Care Bears were one of the great merchandising success stories of the 1980s.
Kristy Sparrow, Getty Images

How do you patent a teddy bear? That was the question facing executives at American Greetings, the popular greeting card company, and toy kingpin Kenner in the early 1980s. American Greetings was coming off the success of Strawberry Shortcake, an apple-cheeked sensation that adorned cards and hundreds of licensed products. Kenner was the force behind the Star Wars action figure line, which rolled out in the late 1970s and went on to become one of the biggest success stories in the history of the toy industry.

Now the two companies wanted to collaborate on a line of teddy bears. For Kenner, it was an opportunity to break into the lucrative plush toy market. For American Greetings, having a stuffed, furry iteration of a greeting card—complete with a name, a unique color, and an emotional message—was the goal. The solution? Put greeting card-esque designs on the bears's stomachs and call them Care Bears. It was a simple idea that proceeded to rake in roughly $2 billion in sales in the Care Bears's first five years alone.

 

Strawberry Shortcake was the brainchild of Those Characters From Cleveland, a creative subsidiary of American Greetings headed up by co-presidents Jack Chojnacki and Ralph Shaffer. (While on a business meeting on the West Coast, the two overheard a receptionist telling someone that “those guys from Cleveland” were there, inspiring the name.) Given a mission from Kenner to reinvent the teddy bear, a childhood staple since the turn of the 20th century, Those Characters recruited cartoonist Dave Polter and freelance artist Elena Kucharik.

Shaffer examined the rainbow, heart, and other greeting card designs submitted by Polter. He then examined the bear sketches turned in by Kucharik. They fit together like two puzzle pieces. Putting the colorful designs on the bear’s stomach gave it a quality similar to the sentimental cards American Greetings was known for.

Two Care Bears are pictured at the Boy Meets Girl x Care Bears Collection at Colette in Paris, France in February 2017
Care Bears symbolize friendship—and billions of dollars in revenue.
Kristy Sparrow, Getty Images

Those Characters continued to refine the look of the bears, compressing their frame and giving them a little extra volume to make them more squeezable, and a heart-shaped button on their rear ends identified them as Care Bears. American Greetings was able to secure a patent based on the graphic design of their bellies. Their two-dimensional look was fleshed out by Sue Trentel, a plush designer who was able to craft a teddy that resembled the drawings.

The creative team eventually settled on a lineup of 10 bears, each one a different color and reflecting a different emotional dimension. There was Bedtime Bear, Birthday Bear, Cheer Bear, Friend Bear, Funshine Bear, Good Luck Bear, Love-a-Lot Bear, Tenderheart Bear, and Wish Bear, along with one anomaly. To balance out the potential overdose of saccharine feelings, Grumpy Bear was added. In the narrative devised by Those Characters, the Care Bears lived in a giant castle and went out on missions of caring.

While Kenner was leading the charge in terms of marketing, American Greetings knew they had a premise with broad appeal. Before any Care Bears made it to shelves, the company secured 26 licensees to manufacture everything from clothing to bedsheets to coloring books. Retailers who may have been reluctant to devote store space to a new line of teddy bears were impressed by the support, leading chains like Walmart, Kmart, and Target to quickly sign on.

 

To complement the launch of the Care Bears at the 1983 Toy Fair in New York City, Kenner president Bernie Loomis mounted a major Broadway-style stage production at a cost of roughly $1 million. During the show, Strawberry Shortcake made an appearance to introduce the next great merchandising craze.

The bears went on sale that March and quickly sold out. Desperate for more product, Kenner promised a factory owner in Taiwan a new Mercedes if he could make 1 million more Care Bears—and quickly. (Kenner got their bears, and the factory owner got his car.) American Greetings had a 16-foot stretch of Care Bears cards lining the greeting card aisles. An animated series was a hit. The Care Bears Movie followed in 1985. By 1988, more than 40 million Care Bears had been sold. By 2007, the number was 110 million. The teddy bear had successfully been reinvented.

Several Care Bears are pictured on a table at the Boy Meets Girl x Care Bears Collection at Colette in Paris, France in February 2017
Care Bears have endured for nearly 40 years.
Kristy Sparrow, Getty Images

The Care Bears have been reintroduced several times, including in 2002, 2007, and 2013. American Greetings is still marketing the Care Bears under their Cloudco Entertainment brand. A new animated series, Care Bears: Unlock the Magic, began airing on Boomerang in 2019, while apparel and other licensing—like Care Bears Funko Pops! and Care Bears clothing for Mattel’s Barbie—is still going strong.

Why the enduring appeal? In 2007, Polter credited the secularized version of values that are often instilled in churches. The Care Bears were on a mission of sharing, loving, and caring—a greeting card message that never had to leave your side.