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.

Amazon's Under-the-Radar Coupon Page Features Deals on Home Goods, Electronics, and Groceries

Stock Catalog, Flickr // CC BY 2.0
Stock Catalog, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

This article contains affiliate links to products selected by our editors. Mental Floss may receive a commission for purchases made through these links.

Now that Prime Day is over, and with Black Friday and Cyber Monday still a few weeks away, online deals may seem harder to come by. And while it can be a hassle to scour the internet for promo codes, buy-one-get-one deals, and flash sales, Amazon actually has an extensive coupon page you might not know about that features deals to look through every day.

As pointed out by People, the coupon page breaks deals down by categories, like electronics, home & kitchen, and groceries (the coupons even work with SNAP benefits). Since most of the deals revolve around the essentials, it's easy to stock up on items like Cottonelle toilet paper, Tide Pods, Cascade dishwasher detergent, and a 50 pack of surgical masks whenever you're running low.

But the low prices don't just stop at necessities. If you’re looking for the best deal on headphones, all you have to do is go to the electronics coupon page and it will bring up a deal on these COWIN E7 PRO noise-canceling headphones, which are now $80, thanks to a $10 coupon you could have missed.

Alternatively, if you are looking for deals on specific brands, you can search for their coupons from the page. So if you've had your eye on the Homall S-Racer gaming chair, you’ll find there's currently a coupon that saves you 5 percent, thanks to a simple search.

To discover all the deals you have been missing out on, head over to the Amazon Coupons page.

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Dollymania: When Dolly the Sheep Created a '90s Media Sensation

Dolly the sheep at the National Museum of Scotland
Dolly the sheep at the National Museum of Scotland
Paul Hudson, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

It was Saturday, February 22, 1997, and British researchers Ian Wilmut and Keith Campbell were expecting a final moment of calm before the results of their unprecedented scientific experiment were announced to the world.

The team had kept the breakthrough under wraps for seven months while they waited for their paper to be published in the prestigious journal Nature. Confidential press releases had gone out to journalists with the strict instruction not to leak the news before February 27.

But that night, the team was tipped off that journalist Robin McKie was going to break the story the very next day in the British newspaper The Observer.

Wilmut and Campbell raced to the lab at the Roslin Institute on Sunday morning as McKie's story hit the media like a thunderbolt. International news outlets had already started swarming at the institute for access to Wilmut and Campbell's creation: Dolly the sheep, the world's first mammal successfully cloned from a single adult cell. Shielded from the general public, she stuck her nose through the fence and munched calmly on the hay in her pen, unperturbed by the horde of news photographers. Dolly, a woolly, bleating scientific miracle, looked much like other sheep, but with a remarkable genetic difference.

By the end of that Sunday, February 23, nearly every major newspaper in the world carried headlines about Dolly the sheep.

A Long-Awaited Breakthrough

Born on July 5, 1996, Dolly was cloned by Wilmut and Campbell's team at the Roslin Institute, a part of the University of Edinburgh, and Scottish biotechnology company PPL Therapeutics. The scientists cloned Dolly by inserting DNA from a single sheep mammary gland cell into an egg of another sheep, and then implanting it into a surrogate mother sheep. Dolly thus had three mothers—one that provided the DNA from the cell, the second that provided the egg, and the third that carried the cloned embryo to term. Technically, though, Dolly was an exact genetic replica of only the sheep from which the cell was taken.

Following the announcement, the Roslin Institute received 3000 phone calls from around the world. Dolly's birth was heralded as one of the most important scientific advances of the decade.

But Dolly wasn't science's first attempt at cloning. Researchers had been exploring the intricacies of cloning for almost a century. In 1902, German embryologists Hans Spemann and Hilda Mangold, his student, successfully grew two salamanders from a single embryo split with a noose made up of a strand of hair. Since then, cloning experiments continued to become more sophisticated and nuanced. Several laboratory animal clones, including frogs and cows, were created before Dolly. But all of them had been cloned from embryos. Dolly was the first mammal to be cloned from a specialized adult cell.

Embryonic stem cells, which form right after fertilization, can turn into any kind of cell in the body. After they modify into specific types of cells, like neurons or blood cells, they're call specialized cells. Since the cell that gave rise to Dolly was already specialized for its role as a mammary gland cell, most scientists thought it would be impossible to clone anything from it but other mammary gland cells. Dolly proved them wrong. 

A Worldwide Reaction—And Controversy

Many scientists in the '90s were flabbergasted. Dolly’s advent showed that specialized cells could be used to create an exact replica of the animal they came from. “It means all science fiction is true,” biology professor Lee Silver of Princeton University told The New York Times in 1997.

The Washington Post reported that "Dolly, depending on which commentator you read, is the biggest story of the year, the decade, even the century. Wilmut has seen himself compared with Galileo, with Copernicus, with Einstein, and at least once with Dr. Frankenstein."

Scientists, lawmakers, and the public quickly imagined a future shaped by unethical human cloning. President Bill Clinton called for review of the bioethics of cloning and proposed legislation that would ban cloning meant ''for the purposes of creating a child” (it didn't pass). The World Health Organization concluded that human cloning was "ethically unacceptable and contrary to human integrity and morality" [PDF]. A Vatican newspaper editorial urged governments to bar human cloning, saying every human has "the right to be born in a human way and not in a laboratory."

Meanwhile, some scientists remained unconvinced about the authenticity of Wilmut and Campbell’s experiment. Norton Zinder, a molecular genetics professor at Rockefeller University, called the study published in Nature "a bad paper" because Dolly's genetic ancestry was not conclusive without testing her mitochondria—DNA that is passed down through mothers. That would have confirmed whether Dolly was the daughter of the sheep that gave birth to her. In The New York Times, Zinder called the Scottish pair's work ''just lousy science, incomplete science." But NIH director Harold Varmus told the Times that he had no doubt that Dolly was a clone of an adult sheep.

Dollymania!

Because she was cloned from a mammary gland cell, Dolly was named—dad joke alert—after buxom country music superstar Dolly Parton. (Parton didn’t mind the attribution.) Like her namesake, Dolly the sheep was a bona fide celebrity: She posed for magazines, including People; became the subject of books, journal articles, and editorials; had an opera written about her; starred in commercials; and served as a metaphor in an electoral campaign.

And that wasn't all: New York Times reporter Gina Kolata, one of the first journalists to give readers an in-depth look at Dolly, wrote Clone: The Road to Dolly, and the Path Ahead and contrasted the animal's creation with the archetypes in Frankenstein and The Island of Dr. Moreau. American composer Steve Reich was so affected by Dolly's story that he featured it in Three Tales, a video-opera exploring the dangers of technology.

The sheep also became an inadvertent political player when the Scottish National Party used her image on posters to suggest that candidates of other parties were all clones of one another. Appliance manufacturer Zanussi used her likeness for a poster with her name and the provocative caption "The Misappliance of Science" (the poster was later withdrawn after scientists complained). In fact, so widespread was the (mis)use of her name that her makers eventually trademarked it to stop the practice.

Dolly's Legacy

Following Dolly, many larger mammals were cloned, including horses and bulls. Roslin Biomed, set up by the Roslin Institute to focus on cloning technology, was later sold to the U.S.-based Geron Corporation, which combined cloning technology with stem cell research. But despite her popularity—and widespread fear— Dolly's birth didn't lead to an explosion in cloning: Human cloning was deemed too dangerous and unethical, while animal cloning was only minimally useful for agricultural purposes. The sheep's real legacy is considered to be the advancement in stem cell research.

Dolly’s existence showed it was possible to change one cell’s gene expression by swapping its nucleus for another. Stem cell biologist Shinya Yamanaka told Scientific American that Dolly’s cloning motivated him to successfully develop stem cells from adult cells. He later won a Nobel Prize for his results, called induced pluripotent stem cells (iPS) because they're artificially created and can have a variety of uses. They reduced the need for embryonic stem cells in research, and today, iPS cells form the basis for most stem cell research and therapies, including regenerative medicine.

Dolly had six offspring, and led a productive, sociable life with many human fans coming to visit her. In 2003, a veterinary examination showed that Dolly had a progressive lung disease, and she was put down. But four clones created from the same cell line in 2007 faced no such health issues and aged normally.

Dolly is still a spectacle, though, nearly 25 years after her creation: Her body was taxidermied and put on display at the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh.