West Fairlee Man Created a 1990s Sensation With ‘Magic Eye’

  • Tom Baccei, of West Fairlee, is the creator of the Magic Eye optical illusions that were popular in the 1990's. Baccei at home in West Fairlee, Vt., Monday, December 4, 2017. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • A small selection of the books, calendars and newspaper features kept from Tom Baccei's days of creating stereograms in the 1990s fills his kitchen table in West Fairlee, Vt., Monday, Dec. 4, 2017. He said he hadn't had them out of storage in years. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Tom Baccei, of West Fairlee, is the creator of the Magic Eye optical illusions that were popular in the 1990s. Baccei at home in West Fairlee, Vt., Monday, December 4, 2017. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Valley News Staff Writer
Friday, December 08, 2017

Raise your thumb at arm’s length in front of you. Close one eye, then open it as you close the other. See how your thumb seems to move back and forth, then settles back to its starting point once both eyes are opened again?

That’s the result of stereopsis, or depth perception based on the slightly different images the brain’s visual cortex receives from each retina, explained Tom Baccei, a retired hippie and inventor now living on a farm in West Fairlee.

Stereopsis allows us to see the world in three dimensions. It also allows us to see stereograms, the optical illusion from Baccei’s Magic Eye book series that — along with Beanie Babies, frosted tips, Game Boys and raves — became one of the defining fads of the 1990s. By focusing their eyes as if they’re staring through, not at, the colorful repeating patterns, viewers may see a three-dimensional image “magically” appear on the two-dimensional surface of the page; this exercise is called “diverging” one’s eyes.

“Those were giddy days,” Baccei said in an interview at his sunny, art-filled home this week, where he’d dug out heaps of old fan letters, magazine ads and other memorabilia and spread them across his kitchen table.

But he rarely thinks of those days anymore, giddy as they were. For Baccei, living life to its fullest has meant living it in discrete chapters, of which he estimated he’s had at least four or five. “One part of your life can easily become your identity,” he said. “You have to let it go, or you won’t work on the other one.”

The Magic Eye chapter “was my time in the goldfish bowl, you could say, my 15 minutes of fame,” he said. Though he enjoyed the art and science of creating the patterns, and even enjoyed the attention on some level, the intensity of the craze made those 15 minutes “not as much fun as you might expect. It’s exhausting, for one thing,” he said. “The business world moved so fast, it would make your head spin.”

Baccei didn’t invent the autostereogram; he stumbled upon it in the little-known Stereo World magazine in 1990. But he was the first to create this particular version of it, the most advanced one that had been developed since scientists started playing around with stereoscopic images in the 1800s.

Aside from publishing more than 20 Magic Eye books, Baccei’s “cheaply punny” company N.E. Thing Enterprises also churned out posters, calendars, syndicated newspaper features, mugs, T-shirts, lunch boxes and innumerable other “tchotchkes,” Baccei said. But N.E. Thing was far from everything Baccei had done in life.

A native of the former mill town Torrington, Conn., he started at the University of Connecticut in 1961, where he studied math — or, as he described it, “modern algebra, sets and groups, layers of abstraction that built on each other” — but never earned his degree: He was too busy participating in all the ’60s had to offer, he said.

“I was a pretty (messed) up student, if you’ll excuse my language,” he chuckled. “It was a wild time, and I had a wild side, and pursuing that was more attractive at the time.”

He still remembers the history he was able to take part in, like being at the Newport Folk Festival the night Bob Dylan went electric, and going down South to protest the segregation of schools.

He was also, in no particular order, a blues musician; a cabinet-maker; a teacher of math, music and 3D animation at an “alternative” school in Boston; and a driver for the Great Green Tortoise, an “alternative” (“illegal,” he admitted) bus service that transported passengers, mainly fellow hippies, across the country to San Francisco, making long detours along the way to visit national parks, hot springs and other attractions.

While this job had its perks, it also meant dealing with everything “from dead bodies to run-ins with Hell’s Angels,” he said. He also wasn’t getting any younger, and had yet to secure a lucrative long-term gig. So he hit the books. In a few years he was working at Intermetrics, a company that helped develop navigation systems for NASA; in a few more years, he was running the Boston branch of the British tech company Pentica.

After coming across stereoscopic images in Stereo World and obscure game and puzzle magazines, Baccei had a thought: Wouldn’t it be neat to create a stereogram that was also an ad for a Pentica product? The piles of letters he got in response to that ad confirmed his instinct that there was something marketable in the magic.

Early “random dot” stereograms, like the kind developed by the psychologist Bela Julesz in the 1950s, created the illusion of 3D shapes by layering two identical patterns of randomly distributed dots on top of one another, then slightly shifting over a portion of one pattern, so that the brain perceives two similar images as a single, three-dimensional shape — like looking at your thumb with both eyes open.

To make a Magic Eye stereogram, Baccei and his team at N.E. Thing would start by designing a soon-to-be-hidden grayscale image with a “depth map,” so darker shades look farther away and lighter shades look closer. Then, a two-dimensional pattern, generated by a computer algorithm, would cover the image so that it was “camouflage” until viewed with diverging eyes.

His vision started out humbly, with a few mail-order posters and a calendar that he had to mortgage his house to pay for. But before the images took off in the United States, they hit it big in Japan. Baccei worked with the Japanese magic trick company Tenyo on his first book of color autostereograms, which came out in 1991 and was marketed for kids.

Baccei can remember the absurdity of “selling 3D books on the streets of Tokyo, standing on a milk crate and making wild gesticulations” to overcome the language barrier, he said, but it worked: The book — which coined the Magic Eye brand name with its title, Miru Miru Mega Yokunaru Magic Eye (Your Eyesight Gets Better and Better in a Very Short Rate of Time: Magic Eye) — was a bestseller within weeks.

“I still have some of (Tenyo’s) magic tricks from those days,” he said. “Hang on.”

He rummaged around the piles of memorabilia on his kitchen table and pulled out Blue Crystal, a trick that makes it look as though a card is sliding right through a solid blue “crystal” box.

“Here, you can even feel the top of it, so you know it’s solid,” he said. “No holes. Hey, don’t touch the bottom! You’re going to find me out.”

Not surprisingly, Baccei is a big fan of optical illusions of all kinds. He’s fascinated by the perception of color, such as how the color purple technically doesn’t exist, and is actually just a combination of red and blue wavelengths of light, and how a lake appears to glisten because of the different way the light hits each eye.

His relationship with Tenyo turned sour, though, when its executives blocked a company in Australia from contacting Baccei about marketing Magic Eye images for adults.

“This was only the first of many discoveries as to the true human nature, as one of greed,” he said. Among the other discoveries: A company from South Korea, after he turned down an absurdly low royalty offer, threatened to “downright steal it,” he said, “which they did.” In Hong Kong, he was awarded an engraved “product of the year” plaque — for a product that had been blatantly bootlegged. And then there were the countless copycats who tried to create and sell their own knock-off images, but who didn’t have the computer programming chops to churn them out nearly as fast and as well as N.E. Thing.

“I think of it as like a crazy fun-house where there are no rules, and there are buckets of money everywhere, and all that matters is what you get out of there with,” he said. “But I tried not to let it rattle my cage. It’s a waste of psychic energy to worry too much about what other people are doing.”

Besides, by 1994, Magic Eye was already a hit in the United States, with its first three books spending 72 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list. Over the next few years, N.E. Thing would partner with companies such as Disney, Warner Bros., Marvel Comics and Paws, Inc., the company behind Garfield comics, to create themed Magic Eye books and products.

But all fads, like chapters in life, must come to an end. When it became clear to Baccei that Magic Eye’s best days were behind it, he moved on. He bought a sports car, a Porsche 911, and bought an airplane and learned to fly.

“Then I got married, and sold the Porsche and sold the airplane,” he joked. His wife is Linda Baccei, a former neurobiologist whose research focused on a specific hormone in the brains of invertebrates, particularly newts. They’d known each other at UConn, but didn’t have much in common back then.

“You couldn’t pay me enough to go back to the ’60s,” she said. “God, what a mess.”

Both of them, “but especially Linda,” said Baccei, are passionate about preserving New England farmland, and both of them very much wanted to move away from suburbia. They bought a house on a parcel of land in West Fairlee — 30 acres of fields and 100 acres of woodland — where they’ve been living quietly for the past 10 or 12 years.

Now, at 74, Tom Baccei continues to invent things here and there, mainly for fun, and still reads books on physics, engineering and calculus. But he’s also getting into hobbies such as photography and drawing, especially portraits, and this past summer took up gardening — diverging his interests, so to speak, to include a whole new dimension.

To his delight, this one has tomatoes.

To learn more about Magic Eye stereograms, visit magiceye.com.

EmmaJean Holley can be reached at ejholley@vnews.com or 603-727-3216.