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September 06, 2003

Magic Eye

Friedrich --

I recently picked up (at B&N, on sale, for next to nothing) one of those Magic Eye books. Remember Magic Eye images? Bizarro computer things that look like a screenful of color-TV static? You stare at them, let your eyes relax and your mind drift, and (holy cow!!!!) a 3-D image opens up before you. As long as you stay in that drifty-yet-alert optical-mental state, you can rove around inside the image, which usually resembles a miniature diorama carved out of confetti. But if you start to think too much about it, or try to focus your eyes too tightly on a detail, oops! And away it slips.

I've always found the Magic Eye images intriguing. First because it's a neat trick. But mostly because I find the optical-mental state they demand (and foster) fascinating. It's close to a meditative state, and it's very refreshing. I come away from 10 or 30 minutes of staring at Magic Eye images as relaxed and calm as I do from a Zen session. I find myself thinking, gee, these images are like computer-generated mandalas! And I wonder if any CAT-scan-type research has been done on the brain activity of people looking at Magic Eye images. (Did a Web sweep; turned up nothing.)

I also chuckle a bit. You know how people who rely on modernist ways of explaining art and who are trying to make art seem important and scientific often fall back on the "it changes your perceptions" argument? Well, I've run across very little art that's as effective at changing my perceptions as staring at Magic Eye images is. Does this mean they're art? Heck, given how powerfully and how quickly the Magic Eye images usher me into an altered state, perhaps it means that they've rendered art irrelevant. Or does it simply mean (as I suspect it does) that the "it changes your perceptions" art-justification line was always a weak one?

In any case, here's Magic Eye's own website. I find making the 3-D thing happen while staring at a computer screen a little more difficult than it is when looking at a book but still quite do-able. How about you?



posted by Michael at September 6, 2003


I've never been able to get those things to work for me. When I was a kid (and very infrequently as an adult), I used to stare at patterned surfaces such as wall papers and tiled floors and be able to evoke a 3 dimensional rendering of several layers of pattern projecting from the surface which is impossible to describe, but which also invariably put me into a deep state of fascinated trance.

The effect I've noticed, I'm sure, is completely coincidental, so I suppose your Magic Eyes are art in a way my mother's kitchen can never be. But perhaps her interior decorator has something new to aspire to...

Posted by: tonio on September 6, 2003 07:54 PM

Tonio -- You remind me that the Wife and I were staying at a b&b recently. Nicely done, colonial-esque wallpaper ... And I found that I could let the eyes go and the wallpaper would go into 3-D, just like a Magic Eye picture. Or rather, just like the space in a Magic Eye picture -- there was no object at the center of it. Quite a shock to see the walls fade back about three feet from where I knew they were.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on September 6, 2003 08:15 PM

I'm the same way with those things. I'd like to know why so many millions can see the damn dog & goose in the clouds, but I can not.

Posted by: Scott Chaffin on September 6, 2003 09:18 PM

tonio just described me and the ole Magic Eye, too. I also have always been fond on trancing out on regular patterns and seeing faux 3D images, but never the one's you're supposed to see in a Magic Eye image.

Posted by: David Mercer on September 7, 2003 05:03 AM

I never have been able to see anything in the Magic Eye images either but maybe I haven't spent enough time trying.

I rarely see animals in the clouds but I often see pictures in bare tree limbs, wood-grain on the furniture, patterns in linoleum, peeling paint or wallpaper and various other things like that.

Posted by: Lynn S on September 7, 2003 03:38 PM

I've just been re-reading Stephen Pinker's "How the Mind Works" and he talks about how Magic Eye pictures work, not on an artistic level but on a visual level, it has to do with the way our brain connects the different pictures coming in from two eyes into one image of the world around us.

It's a fascinating book though very dense, I've read it twice and I think I'll need to read it a couple more times at least to grasp it all. It's about "How the Mind Works" in a very technical sense, as evidence is supplied from cognitive science and other areas of science, but not at all jargonny.

Posted by: Tracy on September 7, 2003 10:12 PM

Tonio & Michael -

The bathroom in the tobacco shop I manage has this sort of patterned wallpaper. You're standing there holding your business and your eyes relax; suddenly the wall jumps three feet back, you get dizzy, and it's time to get the mop...

Seriously, though...Has anyone played with those antique stereoscopes where you insert the cards with two images and look at a different one with each eye? I thought it was cool that magic eye was able to distribute books that cut out the hardware stereoscope hardware, demanding a meditative state and a lot of patience from the viewer instead.

Posted by: Nate on September 7, 2003 10:48 PM

Well, I go beyond Magic Eyes "not working" for me. No, when I finally got the pictures to go 3-D, they showed up backwards!

After about 10 minutes, I got my eyes just right. "It's a bowl! Some sort of bowl, I think!"

"No, it's a globe of the Earth."

I must be hardwired backwards.

Posted by: pathos on September 8, 2003 12:03 AM

My wife also can't see these, nor can she see 3-D with colored glasses. She has amblyopia (lazy eye), which apparently prevents her from integrating disparate images from each eye. (Or perhaps the inability to integrate images causes amblyopia, I'm not sure.)

To answer Michael's question, I've found the whole forced/false parallax thing fascinating since I was a child: stereoscopes (both with cards and with slide viewers - you can still find them), wallpaper, tiles, magic eye, you name it.

Posted by: Doug Sundseth on September 8, 2003 12:43 PM

As I recall, after I've messed around with Magic Eye photos, I'm left with an irritating visual impairment that lasts about 10 minutes. It's like my eyes won't let go of fuzzy, happy, Magic Eye land...yet my brain is on to the next task.

Then I think the headache hits.

So, even though I can find the picture and all...I usually avoid the process.

Hey, any Magic Eye erotica out there? (Or would that be porn?) Then maybe it would be worth the headache. Ha! What would you call that anyway?

Posted by: laurel on September 8, 2003 04:46 PM

The "Magic Eye" images operate on the same principle that ViewMaster toys use to simulate three-dimensional images. Did you ever use those as kids? Basically what they did is force each eye to look at the same image, but from just slightly different angles (which is what your eyes do most of the time, anyway). When your brain properly integrates the two images, a 3D effect results. With the Magic Eye pictures, you're simulating the same effect but without the plastic tool to help -- you have to do it yourself, as it were.

Anyway, crossing your eyes ever so slightly works for me.

Posted by: Jaquandor on September 8, 2003 07:05 PM

I think you're all making it up as you go along, and there's really nothing there but those dumb squiggly lines.

Posted by: Scott Chaffin on September 9, 2003 03:58 AM

Maybe the whole Magic Eye thing is nothing but an aid to self-hypnosis...

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on September 9, 2003 10:34 AM

Check out _Stereogram_ and _Superstereogram_ by Rheingold and Shogakugan--they're more artistically ambitious than the Magic Eye books and have more sorts of stereograms.

Posted by: Nancy Lebovitz on September 9, 2003 12:14 PM

I've never had a problem seeing the Magic Eye stuff, but I haven't found them particularly enlightening or entrancing, either. Perhaps if the hidden image were a little more interesting; erotica, as Laurel suggests, might be just the ticket.

But speaking of headache-inducing images, check these out.

Posted by: Dixon on September 9, 2003 04:08 PM

I was never able to get the Magic Eye images to pop out until reading the section in "How the Mind Works" and working with the very simple image example he shows in the book. Keeping myself in that somehow triumphant yet glazed state, I pulled out the Magic Eye book that had mocked me before and looked at a bunch of them.

I have not been able to make it work since.

Re: Magic Eye erotica, I visited a museum of visual illusions in Germany (can't remember the name) that supposedly had some nudes. (And though I wouldn't put it past my dad to pay off the young boy who walked around the room announcing "castle", "ice cream cone", "naked woman", etc., I am willing to believe they were honest about this.)

I have a strong, pleasant memory of being about 8 years old, 7:00am on a summer morning, lying in bed and evoking interesting textured, almost 3D-seeming images out of patterns in my room. There was a certain blissed-out quality (but that may have been the 7:00am summer morning thing more than the pattern image thing).

Posted by: Sally on September 9, 2003 05:32 PM

thats weird pathos, it does exactly the same thing for me. i learned to see magic eye pictures just two days ago, and i can do them easily now. the only problem is that i see them backwards! the only ones i can see forwards is where they are behind glass and i can look at my reflection through them.

Posted by: holly on December 8, 2003 11:51 AM

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