Remember Magic Eye Pictures? A Sensory Revival From The 1990's....
Updated: Aug 1, 2018
Magic Eye puzzles suddenly became all the rage in the 1990s after the release of the exceedingly popular Magic Eye book series. At first glance, these pictures resembled the marbled paper covering antique books, or looked like psychedelic artworks created by computer. Hidden within these 2D distorted, textured pictures were 3D objects. It was a fad that left people divided; there were those that could see and those that simply and frustratingly couldn't.
It all started when Magic Eye's creator, an engineer called Tom Baccei, worked together with Tenyo, a Japanese company specialising in selling magic supplies. They produced a book which became a best-seller in Japan, then launched it in America under the title Magic Eye: A New Way of Looking at the World. Two more Magic Eye books were published spending a combined total of 73 weeks on the New York Times Bestseller List. Unsurprisingly the hype behind these puzzles generated a glut of other merchandise, from coffee cups to mousemats and even T-shirts.
The lineage of the Magic Eye picture actually originates from humble beginnings. In its simplest form, it was a stereogram used by opticians for depth perception.
By definition, a stereogram is a flat image which, when viewed with both eyes, produces the illusion of depth perception.
Since the pupils in our two eyes are around 6.6cm apart, we see slightly different views from each eye. Our brain composes a single image from these two different views to stop us having double vision, and to enable us to perceive the depth of surrounding objects.
A Simple Experiment To Try.
It's easy at this point to get into a lot of scientific explanation about how this all works, but this is far less interesting then trying a simple experiment to physically demonstrate the principle:
1. Hold your two index fingers horizontally together infront of your face, but instead of focusing on your fingers, focus on a point in the distance, say the opposite wall.
2. And this is what you will see: Your fingers now look like sausage links! So now you have probably guessed we are doing the famous Sausage Finger or Floating Finger Illusion.
This happens because your eyes cannot focus on both near and distant object at the same time. It is impossible for them to do this:
If you concentrate on your fingers, then the background will double such as in the picture below:
If you focus on the background, then your fingers will double:
In the Sausage Finger Illusion it is because your fingers are held horizontally, they are doubled and overlap. The brain is tricked into thinking it is looking at a solid object because these "ghost" fingers overlap and are a similar size and colour.
3. Fun bonus experiment: Slowly pull your fingers apart, and witness the floating sausage in the centre!
This is where we arrive at the question of why some people cannot see Magic Eye puzzles.
An episode of Friends back in the nineties highlighted the issue of the 'seers' versus the 'non-seers' when Ross was unable to spot the Statue of Liberty in his magic eye puzzle.
There are two possible explanations for this: The first is that people with eye problems will naturally struggle – these puzzles are a form of stereograms used by orthoptists and vision therapists for treating binocular vision disorders. Stereograms were first used in the study of human depth perception, specifically on how our eyes see different images and our brains create a single cohesive one. Put simply, for properly functioning binocular vision, there has to be good co-ordination between the two eyes and the brain. An article for Mental Floss summarised that binocular visual disorders were often the result of 'deviations or misalignments of one or both eyes ("crossed eyes" or "wall eyes")'. Other causes could be attributed to situations where 'one eye was more dominant because visual stimulation was either transmitted poorly or not at all from the other, or due to astigmatism or cataracts.'
Before any 'non-seers' start panicking, the vast percentage of non-visually impaired people probably can't see Magic Eye puzzles mainly because of their technique. Looking at Magic Eye puzzles actually requires a little skill and some practice because the bold, psychodelic patterns are a deliberate camouflage.
Another Practical Demonstration Which May Help 'Non-seers':
1. Below is an exercise to converge two similar points to create a new image. In Picture 1 below, the idea is to force your eyes out of focus until the two crosshairs line up with each other.
2. When they overlap, the brain will "lock" them in place. If you have done it correctly you should see three crosshairs and two crosses, such as in Picture 2 below.
3. If this is still not working for you, then try this to force your focus: Using Picture 1, close your eyes, and put your face up to the screen with the X between your eyes. Open your eyes. The two crosshairs should already be overlapping. Slowly pull your face away from the monitor, doing your best to keep the crosshairs overlapped. Practice keeping a relaxed focus.
4. Before you move on to Magic Eye puzzles, you must be able to see Picture 1 resembling Picture 2.
5. Note the sensation you get relaxing your eyes and looking through something instead of focussing directly on it. This is the feeling you will be trying to recreate when looking at Magic Eye pictures.
6. Now you are ready to try it out on the Magic Eye picture I created below. What do you see?
Tranforming A Magic Eye 'Non-Seer' To A 'Seer'.
Using this technique, I successfully transformed Oliver from a 'non-seer' to a 'seer' - finally quelling his belief that there was nothing in the pictures to see (and that the 'seers' were just making it up to feel superior!). After a little practice he has become quite proficient.
For the purposes of this blog article I decided to try making some Magic Eye pictures, the result of which is the picture above. There are several websites that enable you to select the various components for your image and will compile a final downloadable image – I used a site called Easy Stereogram Builder www.easystereogrambuilder.com. Using this website enabled me to fully understand the process of how Magic Eye pictures are created.
How Are Autostereograms / Magic Eye Pictures Created?
Fundamentally it begins with the creation of the hidden 3D image (in the case of the main blog post picture, it's a globe). The hidden image is turned in to an outline, grayscaled, and made 3D through the use of shading - points that are furthest away are darker and closer points have lighter shades. Then a 2D pattern is created to 'camouflage' that image. In my picture, I created a small square cloud image which was tiled to create a larger image.
Finally the computer applies its algorithm to create horizontally repeating overlaying patterns of the hidden image. Each repeat of the image differs slightly with each repetition, giving the illusion of depth when each eye focuses on a different part of the pattern.
When someone looks at a Magic Eye, the repeating pattern feeds the brain the depth information encoded into it, and the brain perceives the hidden picture.
Are Magic Eye Puzzles Due A Comeback?
Given the complexity and cleverness of these images, it's a wonder that these illusions haven't endured the test of time. Owing to my natural curiosity, I find looking at them brings me a sense of wonder and joy which is quite addictive - not to mention the satisfying sensations that relaxing my eyes and looking into the middle distance through bold colours actually creates. Perhaps it's time for a revival.
You can find out more about the science and history of stereograms from this video from Vox.
How good are you at seeing Magic Eye autostereograms? Do you have any methods to improve how easily they can be viewed? Please let us know in the comments section below.