POP CULTURE

The Brains Behind the 90s Magic Eye

A brief history of the global phenomenon that left everybody cross-eyed

Reuben Salsa
Oct 27, 2020 · 5 min read
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Reductionist. A stereo ‘perceptual portrait’ that combines elements of texture perception and random-pattern stereopsis in the Julesz style. Image from MDPI

For a brief moment in time, the world revolved around certain fads and crazes. In the schoolyard, pre-mobile bliss, children would bounce from wall to wall off their space-hoppers while exchanging Garbage Pale Kids and typing 80081355 on their Casio calculator digital watches.

It was a simpler time back then. Kids were easily amused and people still went to work in a cubicle believing life could get better.

Enter the Magic Eye

A devilish invention that would crush your dreams and have you deliriously stare into space in the desperate hope of fitting in.

Formerly known as the greatest global con to storm the office, the Magic Eye imagery swooped like a poster child for all that was cool and obnoxious. This toxic poster was made to make you cross-eyed staring into oblivion. Nobody really could see the hidden image, but that didn’t stop everybody from seeing it.

“Stare long, unfocus your eyes and keep looking” the cool kids would say as they stole your lunch from literally, right under your nose! The smug would offer profound help such as “look AT it and BEYOND it”. Was it worth it? Why did everyone suddenly have the desire to see a comedy dog floating among squiggly lines? It wasn’t long before the collective declared that to see a hidden image was the pinnacle of humanity.

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Is it a dog? Image from Mental Floss

How did the world reach this point?

Can You Pass the Eye Test?

It was all the fault of Hungarian engineer Béla Julesz. Bela dreamed of a better live. One where he could live in peace without the fear of a Soviet invasion.

In 1956, Bela fled his home nation and settled in America. A visual neuroscientist and experimental psychologist, Julesz was the originator of random dot stereograms which led to the creation of autostereograms.

Working at AT&T Bell Laboratories, his experiments with random binary sequences led him to discover a way to test a person’s ability to see in 3D. That’s right. Julesz found a way to know if people could see reality or what’s in front of their faces.

It was a beautifully simple test. Taking a selection of dots, you outline a small section, like a circle, and then shift them a little to one side. Place the two together, the shifted version and the original and, as if by magic, the section or circle, appears to float.

Those who claimed to not see the floating circle would be banished from the office as defective humans destined for the waste-bin of life. The results proved that some people could see life better than others.

Those who couldn’t see in 3D were partially sighted and lacked good depth perception. Two healthy eyes would diverge. Failure to diverge and by how much, meant the degree you needed corrective treatment.

Ironically, NOT being part of the collective and diverging was seen as being bad. Or not seen as was the case with Julesz’s experiment. Don’t diverge kids!

Julesz referred to this, whimsically, as cyclopean vision, after the mythical Cyclopes, creatures with a single eye in their forehead instead of the usual two. This was because the shape of the depth area was invisible to either eye separately; it’s visible only to the cyclopean eye of stereoscopic perception that combines the information from the two eyes.

Head of the Sensory and Perceptual Processes Department (1964–1982), then the Visual Perception Research Department (1983–1989) at AT&T Bell Laboratories, his experiments were a side-note in the history of sight. Then along came former student to Julesz, Christopher Tyler.

Tyler could see clearer than Julesz and further developed the random dot stereogram into the black-and-white autostereogram in 1979 with the assistance of computer programmer Maureen Clarke. Basically the same patterns that could now be viewed with the naked eye instead of a special lens.

How to Market Magic

Julesz’s altruistic creation was now being reconfigured for global consumption.

It was in Japan where creator Tom Baccei worked with Tenyo who sold magic supplies that the first book came out. Published in late 1991 titled Miru Miru Mega Yokunaru Magic Eye (“Your Eyesight Gets Better & Better in a Very Short Rate of Time: Magic Eye”), Tenyo sent sales representatives out to street corners to demonstrate how to see the hidden images.

The first North American Magic Eye book, Magic Eye: A New Way of Looking at the World soon topped the list of New York Bestsellers when it was released in 1993. Two more books followed and the three books spent a cumulative total of 73 weeks on the New York Times Bestseller List.

Within five years, the former American computer programmers of N.E. Thing Enterprises patented the full-color, non-random technique as The Magic Eye and began to exploit the weak-eyed public in the ways of divergence.

Before long, no Christmas was complete without staring at strange squiggles cross-eyed after Christmas lunch. Never before had the general public been convinced to see so much in so little for so long a time! Hippies decorated their rooms in the bastard offspring of stereograms, while grown men wept at their lack of divergence within American society.

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Is it a girl? Who cares?

Fear of Missing Out (FOMO) became a new reality. The world was soon separated into people who could see a floating lump and those who desperately wanted to see a floating lump.

The remainder just shrugged and got on with living life in actual 3D.

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Reuben Salsa

Written by

SPACE FOR HIRE.

Lessons from History

Lessons from History is a platform for writers who share ideas and inspirational stories from world history. The objective is to promote history on Medium and demonstrate the value of historical writing.

Reuben Salsa

Written by

SPACE FOR HIRE.

Lessons from History

Lessons from History is a platform for writers who share ideas and inspirational stories from world history. The objective is to promote history on Medium and demonstrate the value of historical writing.

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