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Illusions of Grandeur : Why are all those people squinting at wild patterns on cards and books? The better to see Magic Eye's camouflaged 3-D creations, of course. But you've got to have patience--and healthy depth perception.

August 03, 1994|ANDREW BROWNSTEIN | Los Angeles Times

Every day at lunch, gaggles of corporate types leave their Downtown high-rises hoping to see a vision or two.

Decked out in shoulder pads and pin-striped suits, they swarm the card racks at Mr. G's Expressions, where they cross their eyes for hours and exclaim that they've seen bullfrogs, fish and even, on occasion, Elvis.

"Sometimes we just make fun of them because they have these cards stuck up to their noses for half an hour," says Patty Aleman, manager of the gift shop at Seventh Market Place.

They're staring at stereograms, an optical oddity that once entertained the court of Queen Victoria and has re-emerged in the computer age as a multimillion-dollar global phenomenon.

The sun never sets on this fad's formidable empire. Through Magic Eye, by far the most popular line of stereogram products, images have been embossed on everything from Pepsi cans in the United Kingdom to rice-paper fans in Japan. "Magic Eye" and "Magic Eye II"--hard-bound, glossy coffee-table books full of the camouflaged 3-D creations--reside comfortably on the New York Times bestseller list and have inspired a host of imitators.

The folks at Magic Eye even have a '90s version of the Babe Ruth story.

Mark Gregorek, the marketer chiefly responsible for its success, says he knows of a Massachusetts boy who sliced his foot in a lawn mower accident. While at the hospital, he found that staring at hidden images of sea gulls and flowers helped ease his pain.

"He calls it his healing book," says Gregorek, who runs the marketing firm Blue Moon in Ramsey, N.J. "It's really mystical."

And for some, it's really mystifying.

"It's a totem pole. It's definitely a totem pole," proclaims Fred Patton, 45, a manager at the nearby First Interstate Bank during a noontime sojourn to Mr. G's. Searching for a card to send a friend who is leaving to work in Saudi Arabia, Patton settled on a collage of world flags. Far from a totem pole, the hidden image turned out to be the United Nations building.

"I just got contacts," Patton says a little sheepishly. "I usually get these right away."

On the surface, the waves of lines and color fit somewhere between abstract Expressionism and the opening credits to "Outer Limits." But for those possessing patience and healthy depth perception, the images create the sensation of moving from two dimensions into three.

At least, that's what's supposed to happen.

Beyond the 5% with visual impairments such as strabismus and astigmatism, about half the population can't see the images because of mental blocks, Gregorek says.

Children seem to have the easiest time. Used to staring at the wallpaper as they go to sleep or daydreaming as they skip over cracks in the sidewalk, kids have the kind of skewed visual sense that Magic Eye demands, its creators say.

Photographers, artists and graphic designers lead that portion of the population who just don't get it, Gregorek says. "It's understandable. They are more or less locked in to their own way of seeing the world."

Magic Eye is the brainchild of hippie-turned-entrepreneur Tom Baccei, 50, who says he now makes more money than "a good shortstop."

"The dots have been very, very good to me," he acknowledges.

A spirit of inspired lunacy pervades Baccei's N.E. Thing Enterprises, the 10-person Bedford, Mass., company where Magic Eye stereograms are created for everything from Brookville neckties to newspaper comics pages.

When Cheerios executives visited the company to discuss an upcoming promotion, computer designers surprised them with a subliminal joke. A stereogram on the front of a box pictured a bowl of cereal which, upon prolonged staring, revealed the honey-nut O's in the form of the words "Buy me."

"They said 'Oh, no, we can't do that,' " Baccei recalls.

Of course, Baccei didn't so much invent stereograms as stumble upon a curiosity that has lingered for more than a century.

The public's fascination with 3-D images started long before audiences adorned the famous green-and-red glasses for such B-movies as "House of Wax."

Invented by Sir Charles Wheatstone in 1838, the pictures became a favorite plaything of the elite, amusing the likes of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, according to "Stereogram" (Cadence Books, 1994), a collection of essays on the subject. Dali, Duchamp and Escher also became aficionados of the illusions--dual images that, when merged through a stereoscope, tricked the eye into seeing depth.

The technology lay dormant--of interest to a handful of ophthalmologists and trinket collectors--until 1959, when Dr. Bela Julesz, a cognitive psychologist at Bell Telephone Laboratories in New Jersey, used computers to make stereograms visible to the naked eye.

In their current form, the images could be a kaleidoscopic flashback from Tom Baccei's psychedelic past. During the '70s, Baccei traversed the country in the Great Green Tortoise, part of the "underground" bus fleet that took free spirits from Boston to San Francisco.

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