Sandoval Signpost

An Independent Monthly Newspaper Serving the Community since 1988

  Real People

TV Guide Stereogram

Stereogram artist keeps his focus beyond the prize

—Keiko Ohnuma, Signpost




This is the stereogram that will appear in TV Guide, with some additional text and logo at the top. Subtle shifts in the repeating panels create the hidden 3-D image. For details on how to look at a stereogram see Signpost/Stereogram


Gary Priester

Gary Priester demonstrates how he generates stereograms using a vector drawing program and stereogram-generating software.


Stereogram images

The left is the photo supplied by Starz for the stereogram image, along with the simplified grayscale depth map that was ultimately used.


You’re not alone if you’ve never seen anything in the Signpost’s monthly stereogram but wrapping paper. I hadn’t either. When these illusions first became popular under the “Magic Eye” title, I would stare at them in bookstores and give up in frustration. But with the assignment to interview our stereogram artist Gary Priester, the moment of truth had arrived.

Priester has been obsessed with stereograms since he first saw a Magic Eye book in the 1990s in San Francisco, where he and his wife ran their own design company. He paid the writer of an article about stereogram software to come to his house and show him all he knew.

Since then, Priester has authored multiple books and a whole series of magazine-books (“mooks”) in Japan featuring hundreds—nay, thousands—of stereograms. Now he is making a leap to the national stage with a commission to do a stereogram for TV Guide’s January issue, to promote a new show on the Starz channel.

“They contacted me about two months ago to do a stereogram promotion for ‘Spartacus,’” he said, summarizing the series’ plot line as “nudity, sex, and violence.” A veteran of the advertising business, Priester said sure.

Seated in his comfortable home office before a large-screen PC—he’s a graphics rebel who eschews Macs—Priester explained how he assembles the flat images that transform into 3-D when viewed in a certain way.

The stereogram is based on what is called a “depth map,” a black-and-white rendering of an object that is shaded not in the usual way, but according to which part of the object would be closest to the viewer. On the page, white areas tend to appear closer, while darker areas recede.

Priester uses stereogram-generating software to reproduce the effects of the depth map within a busy, repeating pattern. While this pattern may appear uniform at first glance, there are subtle changes in each repeat that play on the brain’s way of reconciling the different perspectives of the right and left eye. When viewed straight on—each eye focused straight ahead, rather than on the page—the effect is three-dimensional, as in real life. A central image emerges out of the pattern and seems to float above the page.

TV Guide, for its central image, sent Priester an actor in a battle pose wearing Roman warrior regalia. “Stereograms are like low-resolution printing,” he explained, meaning simple images work best. For a silhouette this complex, he had to call on the help of a specialist, and together they simplified the image.

To make the details more visible as the gladiator emerges from a field of stones in the coliseum, Priester added a repeating outline of the figure. He demonstrated the process using the image of a simple cube.

Using a vector drawing program called Xara Xtreme, which he knows so thoroughly that he writes the online tutorials, Priester first generates a depth map of the cube. Then he chooses a background, such as grass or stones, which he alters toward abstraction. Finally he generates the outline, which must be ever so slightly smaller than the original to “read” correctly.

Each of these three elements he imports into the software that generates a hidden-image stereogram. Finally he overlays the three images in ways that far surpass my limited grasp of technology.

“It’s magic,” he says of the fascination with stereograms, for which the Japanese seem to have an insatiable appetite. With fellow stereogram artist Gene Levine, Priester has sold a total of four million copies of publisher Takarajimasha’s stereogram “mooks.” In 2003, he and Levine published a couple of books for a British publisher, Arcturus, under the title Eye Tricks, and followed that with an American title for Sterling Publishing called Hidden Treasures. Currently he has a deal in the works with a British company that wants to license some of his stereograms for jigsaw puzzles.

“When people ask me how I would classify my work, I say it’s five percent art and ninety-five percent magic,” says Priester, who spent his career in corporate advertising before semi-retiring to a life of website and logo design and stereograms. “When you see the images, there’s a magic quality to it—looking at 2D and seeing 3D.”

After studying the instructions on Priester’s website ( and page-surfing the topic at Wikipedia, I finally seized upon the stereogram thing: A hidden image magically levitated off the page. Happily, it’s like riding a bike: You only have to learn to do it once.

“Most people who can’t see them are focusing on the page, which is what we’ve been trained to do,” explains Priester, who has been staring at computers since they maxed out at 2K in memory. “You have to focus on the middle distance, behind the image.

“Some people use it as a method of relaxing or meditating,” he adds—and after you’ve seen a couple of the images “pop,” you’ll understand why. The concentration required to refocus the eyes sweeps all thoughts from the mind, as does the wonder of watching an image develop clarity and three-dimensionality the longer you look. It’s hard to think about anything when you’re staring at a stereogram, which may be why some people find them as addictive as television.

Priester notes that stereograms have been used as exercises for eye injuries, although there is another type, designed to be viewed cross-eyed, that can be stressful on the eyes. Interestingly, if you look at a stereogram the way it is not meant to be seen, such as cross-eyed rather than wall-eyed, the central image will sink in, rather than pop out. And the technical explanations for this phenomenon are abundantly available online for those who are ready to emerge from their wall-eyed state.






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