The allure of searching for hidden 3D images

  • 4 February 2014
Magic Eye
What's hidden in this Magic Eye picture? Answer at the bottom of the page

A music video has revived the genre of the autostereogram, better known under the trademark Magic Eye. Could this most 1990s of optical illusions make a comeback, asks Jon Kelly.

If you stared and squinted long enough at the computer-generated tie-die pattern you were rewarded with a unicorn, or perhaps some kind of eagle, leaping out of the page towards you. Apparently. It never worked for me, although I wasted countless hours of my adolescence searching fruitlessly.

A widely-shared music video by Canadian indie-rockers Young Rival revives the autostereogram - which creates a 3D effect from a 2D image - though the animation is not endorsed by Magic Eye Inc, whose owners sparked the 1990s' most psychedelic fad. Magic Eye books were a publishing phenomenon, with three volumes selling 25 million copies and spending a combined 73 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list. Untold numbers of Magic Eye posters leapt out from the bedroom walls of check-shirted teenagers, to the strains of Jeremy by Pearl Jam or What's Up? by 4 Non Blondes. I certainly wasn't the only one who had trouble with them, however. Comedies from Seinfeld to Mallrats to Friends mined the frustrations of the minority of us who just couldn't un-focus our eyes correctly.

The earliest autostereograms were developed by 19th Century scientists Charles Wheatstone and David Brewster. But it wasn't until 1991 when Massachusetts-based engineer Tom Baccei and artist Cheri Smith decided to bring out the hugely popular range of books. For a time they were everywhere, not least in the pages of the Daily Mail, which delivered a weekly Magic Eye quiz to the sitting rooms of middle England.

Wolf
A wolf, of course

As the novelty wore off, the craze diminished somewhat, says Phillip Jones, editor of The Bookseller. "But it wouldn't surprise me if they made a comeback - publishers are quite keen to reinforce the value of the print book, and these things work better on the printed page," he adds. Magic Eye Inc says it is still a "thriving" business, syndicating images to newspapers around the world. Maybe that unicorn will finally come into focus for the likes of me after all.

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