Magic Eye Books: Celebrating the Infuriating Staring Contest

Magic Eye: A New Way of Looking at the World
It’s a kind of magic.

If you were around in the mid-1990s, these things from N.E. Thing Enterprises (now Magic Eye Inc.) briefly took over the world.

They were like Pogs, a brief fad—although not one as captivating as milk caps! But memorable enough to warrant this tribute post.

What are Magic Eye Books?

These are picture books with autostereogram images. That’s a single-image sterogram that creates a visual illusion. One of a 3D scene, but actually from a 2D picture.

An autosterogram makes your eyes go a bit wonky. So you have to battle your automatic visual coordination between the focus and angle of your eyeballs.

It’s basically a depth perception thing. Each of your eyeballs has a different perspective of the thing you’re looking at—that’s called binocular parallax.

Luckily, you don’t need to purchase a pair of binoculars to make Magic Eye books work. In fact, if you tried that on one of these things you’d likely pass out.

An Example of a Magic Eye Image

A Magic Eye Book image

Not the prettiest of things, is it? It looks like an artist has had one too many epiphanies and this is the result.

As a kid being handed a book of these by the parents, we wondered if it was some sort of torture device. Such as enforced homework.

However, that’s not the case. The art books are for fun. It’s just you have to put a bit of effort in to get the rewards.

If you remember these things from the 1990s then you’ll know the drill.

Otherwise, the general practice was to hold the book in front of your stupid face. Then either move it away very slowly, or move your face towards it very slowly.

Eventually, your eyes will “acclimatise” (not the right word here, but we don’t care) and suddenly the likes of a giraffe will emerge from the pixel vomit.

However, many people struggled with the whole thing. And we still remember some kids from primary school who, upset, couldn’t make the concept work.

That difficulty was arguably part of the appeal. As once you achieved your sightseeing goal, you felt pretty smug about yourself.

Indeed. We have “Magic Eye book master” placed right at the top of our curriculum vitae. It’s the first thing we ever discuss at job interviews, dinner parties, and at art musuems.

How Do I Make Magic Eye Work?

The advice is, “Look through the picture, not at it.” For most people, patience is the best bet—move the book slowly away/towards your face.

Eventually, your eyes kind of do this funny, fuzzy shift thing and then you’re able to make out the 3D image before you.

It’s… not really the biggest reward in the world. The whole Magic Eye phenomenon we remember being rather short lived.

Long out of the way before 1997 rolled around. But not before over 20 million copies of the books shifted—at its peak, public demand was massive.

However, we believe orthoptists and vision therapists still use the books to help individuals deal with binocular vision and accommodative reflex issues.

But there’s help from the official website, which provides the following:

"Hold the center of the printed image right up to your nose. It should be blurry. Focus as though you are looking through the image into the distance. Very slowly move the image away from your face until the two squares above the image turn into three squares. If you see four squares, move the image farther away from your face until you see three squares. If you see one or two squares, start over!"

Who Created Magic Eye?

Tom Baccei is the individual behind it. Working with Japanese toy company Tenyo at the time, he got the first images done in 1991.

So the first Magic Eye books actually launched in Japan as Miru Miru Mega Yokunaru Magic Eye (マジック・アイ:あなたの視力は、時間の非常に短いレートでより良い&ベターを取得します。).

The translation into English there is Magic Eye: Your Eyesight Gets Better and Better at a Very Short Rate of Time.

Although another translation we saw of that simply read, “Look Better”. We’ll go with the first one, seems more legitimate.

As sales of the first book were sensational (a bestseller, no less), a second was commissioned. And then it got shifted over to North America in 1993, where it spent 73 weeks on New York’s bestseller list.

Like some crazed artistic staring plague, it went on to dominate Europe as well.

Baccei is now 74 and told AIGA Eye on Design in April 2019, “Fads have a predictable life.” As it came and went in a handful of years—the likes of pogs and Tamagotchi took over as the latest crazes.

By the end of the 1990s the whole thing was over. But the concept isn’t exactly consigned to the sin bin for all eternity.

Modern Magic Eyes

There’s a little shop in Provincetown, Massachusetts that keeps the whole optical illusion going. And a very basic website that belongs in 1995.

Having a look on Google Maps, it’s near to fine establishments such as Irie Eats and Mac’s Fish House. All in the rather magnificent looking bowl curving off the coast.

It’s also quite near Martha’s Vineyard, where Jaws was filmed. Fact of the day.

The business is now more of a creative agency type deal. So, it’s more of a cult fandom now, with a big dose of nostalgia.

Which should work nicely for the 25th anniversary tome Magic Eye staff are working on right now. Indeed.

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