Magic Eye: Can You See It?

Let’s take a trip back to 1993. The Buffalo Bills lost their third consecutive Superbowl,  Billy Crystal hosted the Academy Awards, Jurassic Park made its theatrical debut, and Tom Baccei captivated the world with the hottest optical illusion to hit the market since the Ames Room. That’s right, today we’re talking about Magic Eye. 

Magic Eye is definitely the grooviest type of illusion, but it also might be the most frustrating. Many of our visitors give up trying to find anything in the seemingly innocuous colorful swirls. We even have some staff members who still can’t find the “magic” in the Magic Eye. Let’s dig into its history, how to see it, and why some people are simply blind to the magic.

The History of Magic Eye

Magic Eye wasn’t actually a new concept when Baccei coined the term in 1993. In fact, the idea behind this psychedelic illusion dates back to the 19th century.

Known formally as “autostereograms,” Magic Eyes are a swirl of colored and textured dots or pictures that hide a 3D image. This image can only be observed when the viewer unfocuses their vision. Baccei’s brand popularized the illusions, and in turn, swept the nation, but stereograms are not a novel concept.

In fact, well before Magic Eye was taking the world by storm, Sir Charles Wheaton created something called the “stereoscope,” which amused the likes of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert. The year was 1828, and the stereoscope was a device that played on the fact that we have a gap in our vision. It merged two images together to make them appear three-dimensional.

In the 1970s, a neuroscientist by the name of Christopher Tyler figured out a way to create the stereogram effect within a singular image. It was this type of image that initially caught Tom Baccei’s eye, effectively causing him to coin the term and kick off a huge trend.

An example of a Magic Eye Illusion which, when viewed at a certain angle reveals a hidden 3D image.
A Magic Eye (or autostereogram illusion) that reveals hidden 3D circles and squares. Can’t see it? Keep reading for a hint.

Baccei’s Magic Eye

When Tom Baccei was initially captivated by the autostereogram, he was working in advertising at a company called Pentica Systems. He came across an autostereogram in Stereo World magazine and was inspired to create one to advertise a Pentica product. In this image, he hid the item’s model number and asked readers to write in for a prize if they found it.

Readers were awed by Baccei’s ad, which in turn caused a quick rise in popularity of the Magic Eye. Although he knew it was a fad, Baccei opted to capitalize on it while he could. He partnered with a graphic artist named Cheri Smith, and began to take the world by storm.

By 1993, the Baccei’s illusion was everywhere. Baccei published a book called Magic Eye: A New Way of Looking at the World, and then a sequel. Both books were best-sellers. Magic Eye could be found on posters, postcards, advertisements- everywhere. The Magic Eye company (formerly N.E. Thing Enterprises) grossed over 100 million dollars in revenue.

Unfortunately, like all fads, the Magic Eye craze died out around 1995, and Baccei sold his portion of the company.

Even though it failed to maintain its hold on pop culture, this funky autostereogram still has its hold on our hearts here at the Museum of Illusions NYC.

How to See the Magic

The Magic Eye is equal parts amazing and frustrating. When viewed properly, the 2D image reveals a hidden image that appears to be floating in 3D. It’s easy to feel like you’re going insane staring at an illusion and not seeing what everyone else is seeing.

An example of a Magic Eye, or autostereogram, illusion for the Museum of Illusions New York City blog. When looked at from a certain angle, the illusion reveals a 3D image of a shark.
A popular autostereogram. Can’t see it? Try holding your nose against the screen and slowly moving your face away from the screen.
“Stereogram Tut Random Dot Shark” is licensed by CC BY-SA 3.0

The best way to see the illusion is to hold the image very close to your face. Touch your nose to it if you can, and then unfocus your vision. Look as if you’re looking through the image at something in the distance. Then very slowly move your face away from the image, keeping your vision unfocused. As you get a little further away, the 3D image should start to reveal itself.

If you have tried everything, and still can’t see the Magic Eye, then it might be time to get your vision checked! Failure to see the Magic Eye can be indicative of issues with your binocular vision. But don’t panic! Sometimes it just takes a little practice for the illusion to reveal itself.

If you’re feeling inspired by this trip down the Magic Eye memory lane, then it might be time to stop into the Museum of Illusions and experience the magic in person. Click here to plan your visit!