STARING usually isn't considered polite. But Tom Baccei, creator of Magic Eye, has made a bundle encouraging people to do it.
There are few places in the world where one can't find his two-dimensional computer-generated dot images, which, when stared at properly, appear to be three-dimensional. From Australian Aboriginal huts to a question on ``Jeopardy,'' Magic Eye has made it.
Total retail sales worldwide in 1994 for products bearing the Magic Eye logo, Mr. Baccei estimates, are between $200 million and $250 million. (The 15 million books sold in 1994 alone represent roughly $200 million in sales.)
The 3-D concept has been around for about 150 years. ``[But] what was missing from the mix ... was P. T. Barnum,'' he says in an interview at his company headquarters, N.E. Thing Enterprises Inc., in Bedford, Mass. ``There's got to be a big marketing concept and the willingness to think big.''
The key to much of Baccei's success has been his home-grown marketing genius, which he attributes to his melange of experiences during his hippie years: teacher, blues musician, carpenter, and tour-bus driver.
What he started in 1991 - advertising a few posters and a 1992 calendar in airline magazines - has erupted into a marketing success. Just about anything that can be printed on has become a target for these playful patterns: calendars, greeting cards, postcards, videos, T-shirts, neckties, children's sleepwear, Pepsi cans in Britain, 20 million Honey Nut and Apple Cinnamon Cheerios boxes, as well as a weekly syndicated feature in some 300 newspapers.
But books are the core business, which include Magic Eye I, II, and III; a Christmas book ``Do You See What I See''; and ``Disney's Magic Eye.''
Baccei's strategy has been twofold. First, he wanted to get as many people as possible hooked. ``My idea from the very beginning, was a breeder reactor. I wanted to find ways of disseminating this broadly,'' he contends.
In the beginning, he says he gave away as much as he could for free. ``It was my firm conviction that ... the more of them that were in people's wallets or on their coffee tables or wherever, the more likely it would turn into a phenomenon, which, it really did.''
Second, he has attempted, quite successfully, to associate Magic Eye with brand-name commercial giants. ``I don't want this to be a fad industry,'' Baccei says. ``I very much want to make this business into an ongoing established part of the American market.''
``How do we do that? Like this,'' he says, pointing to the Disney book, ``Disney's Magic Eye, Garfield's Magic Eye, Looney Toon's Magic Eye, and all of a sudden everybody's partners with Magic Eye.'' Currently in the works: a contract with Warner Brothers to do a Looney Toons book; an arrangement with Garfield; tentative deals with Ballantine Books to do two Star Wars books, and arrangements with Peanuts and Marvel comics.
Baccei is fairly confident that his business will survive fadship. ``The fad portion of any business, in my estimation, is the discovery process,'' he says. So by continually giving the consumer something new to discover, he reasons, it extends the life of the fad.
But others aren't so certain. ``It certainly is a fad,'' says Pete Fader, associate professor of marketing at Wharton Business School in Philadelphia. ``As a consumer, it's the type of thing that 20 years from now people will have no knowledge of, or else they'll be embarrassed by it - much like the leisure suit.'' For it to have long-term appeal, he adds, it has to change the way people live.
After studying computer science in the late 1970s, for no other reason than to land a good-paying job, Baccei started in 1986 a small high-tech computer company called Pentica Systems Inc. in Bedford. The company sells and services in-circuit emulators (debugging tools).
While running Pentica, Baccei got the idea for selling 3-D images. He ran an ad in a trade magazine, where he hid the model number of one of his products in the field of dots. Within a month, he received some 3,000 letters from people other than the usual techno-buffs who read the magazine: homemakers, prisoners, bus drivers, and pilots.
``I literally had one of those epiphanies where I woke up at four in the morning and said, `If they'll send me letters, they'll send me money.' ''
His first real success was in Japan. In 1991, he entered an arrangement with Tenyo, a Japanese company internationally known for its pocket magic tricks, which created the name Magic Eye. Baccei started selling books, posters, jig-saw puzzles, fans, neckties, and lunch tins.
By 1993, Magic Eye was off and running, and he started to focus more on the United States. Tenyo had all sorts of requirements and started pigeonholing his products as children's entertainment for car trips, he says, so he bowed out.
``I always prefer to work with smaller companies,'' he says. ``Bureaucracies drive me absolutely crazy.'' He adds that he is not going to grow his business beyond 10 people, regardless of the work he has to turn away.
As part of his game plan, he says he hopes to develop a TV animation show, CD-ROM, books, and magazines about the life of Magic Eye icon Wizzy Nodwig, a well-intentioned adolescent wizard who tries to save the world from characters such as ``couch potatoes.'' The name Wizzy Nodwig, which stands for ``What you see is not what you get,'' is a pun on computer lingo.
``I want to grow [to] where I'm no longer a one-legged stool,'' he says, ``meaning that I'll be very happy the first day we do a book that has no 3-D component in it [and] it's a best seller ... where Magic Eye is considered to be a company of high-quality graphics and stories independent of the 3-D stuff.''
Baccei says he can see the 3-D images in a fraction of a second. What about the rest of us? His pitch: keep trying.