Hiding in Plain Sight

updated 11/28/1994 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 11/28/1994 AT 01:00 AM EST

WOW—THAT'S SO TRIPPY!" "What?" "The boxing kangaroos."

"Where?"

"Right there—in the middle of the picture."

"What are you on? All I see is a jumble of color."

"Hold the picture up close. Now slowly move it away. Don't focus. Concentrate. Look beyond the surface. You'll see."

"Wow! Boxing kangaroos!"

So goes a typical encounter over one of the three-dimensional puzzles in Thomas Baccei's best-seller Magic Eye, a book that is as baffling to some readers—or, if you will, gazers—as it is delightful to others. Solving Baccei's 3-D puzzles requires viewers to play a Zen-like trick on their own eyes. Three-D images hidden within a chaotic, Rorschach swirl of color can only be seen by not looking; viewers must allow their vision to blur in order to perceive the hidden image. But the payoff—a map of the world, say, materializing on a page full of tiny photos of children's faces—is an eye-popping surprise.

"I call it the Eureka moment when that happens," says Baccei (pronounced bah-CHAY), 50, the computer artist whose penchant for 3-D visuals has spawned a $200 million global industry. Magic Eye and its sequel, Magic Eye II, both published this year, zoomed up the New York Times bestseller list—the first volume sold more than 1 million copies in six months—and Magic Eye III hit the stores in September. Now Baccei's 3-D images are popping out on postcards, mugs, lunch boxes and posters.

Working out of a small office and warehouse in a bland industrial park just outside Boston, Baccei and his staff of seven churn out five to 10 designs weekly, barely enough to meet demand. But capitalizing on the fad he created means hard work. "I try to be generous with my employees," says Baccei. "I hope we can all share in the success. There's only one rule: I make the first million."

An address on Millionaires Row hardly seemed in the cards for Baccei, who grew up in Torrington, a working-class Connecticut mill town. The younger of two sons of an Italian-American lathe operator, Egisto, and his wife, Margaret, a secretary, Baccei describes himself as a lazy and unrepentant underachiever who rarely got a grade higher than a C in school and spent most of his time hanging out. After dropping out of the University of Connecticut in 1965, he was honorably discharged from the Air Force because of poor health four years later. Staying on in Tampa, where he had been stationed, Baccei hung out with a group of would-be filmmakers who cast him as Fred the Hippie in Sensation Generation. "I had to lick whipped cream off the breast of a stripper," he says of his brief movie career.

Still fired by a lack of ambition, Baccei moved to Boston, where he worked as a cabinetmaker, sang folk songs in coffeehouses and finally accepted a job teaching troubled students at an alternative school in Roxbury. Four years later, he quit to study computer programming and found his niche. By 1989 he was involved in marketing for the U.S. subsidiary of a British computer company. Then, after a friend told him about 3-D computer-generated "random dot stereograms," Baccei experienced his own Eureka moment. "It blew my mind that there was something new out there I hadn't known about," says Baccei, who created his own 3-D puzzles, which he tested on friends. "My mother did one in 15 seconds or less. It took my father six grim weeks."

In 1991 Baccei set up his own U.S. company for his 3-D merchandise, which was first marketed in Japan. Each puzzle is made up of repetitive images; he and his staff spend as much as three weeks perfecting a puzzle.

The work—Baccei expects to net $5 million this year—doesn't leave much time for his favorite recreations: golf, flying or hanging out in his farmhouse set on seven acres in rural Stow, Mass., 30 miles northwest of Boston. At Canyon Ranch, an Arizona health spa where he spent his first vacation in three years, the 250-pound entrepreneur dropped 15 pounds in an effort to get "back to dating weight."

A lifelong bachelor, Baccei says he's anxious to resume a social life—"It has been difficult to keep one going with this obsession"—but has little time for courting. Does he fear that 3-D puzzles will soon go the way of other great American fads—like, say, pet rocks? Replies Baccei: "Let me just say, we don't expect this to be a pogo stick that hits the ground once."

STEPHEN DOUGHERTY
TOM MORONEY in Boston

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