An autostereogram is a single-image stereogram (SIS), designed to create the visual illusion of a three-dimensional (3D) scene from a two-dimensional image. In order to perceive 3D shapes in these autostereograms, one must overcome the normally automatic coordination between accommodation (focus) and convergence (angle of one's eyes). The illusion is one of depth perception and involves stereopsis: depth perception arising from the different perspective each eye has of a three-dimensional scene, called binocular parallax.
The simplest type of autostereogram consists of horizontally repeating patterns (often separate images) and is known as a wallpaper autostereogram. When viewed with proper convergence, the repeating patterns appear to float above or below the background. The well-known Magic Eye books feature another type of autostereogram called a random dot autostereogram. One such autostereogram is illustrated above right. In this type of autostereogram, every pixel in the image is computed from a pattern strip and a depth map. A hidden 3D scene emerges when the image is viewed with the correct convergence.
Autostereograms are similar to normal stereograms except they are viewed without a stereoscope. A stereoscope presents 2D images of the same object from slightly different angles to the left eye and the right eye, allowing us to reconstruct the original object via binocular disparity. When viewed with the proper vergence, an autostereogram does the same, the binocular disparity existing in adjacent parts of the repeating 2D patterns.
There are two ways an autostereogram can be viewed: wall-eyed and cross-eyed. Most autostereograms (including those in this article) are designed to be viewed in only one way, which is usually wall-eyed. Wall-eyed viewing requires that the two eyes adopt a relatively parallel angle, while cross-eyed viewing requires a relatively convergent angle. An image designed for wall-eyed viewing if viewed correctly will appear to pop out of the background, while if viewed cross-eyed it will instead appear as a cut-out behind the background and may be difficult to bring entirely into focus.
In 1838, the British scientist Charles Wheatstone published an explanation of stereopsis (binocular depth perception) arising from differences in the horizontal positions of images in the two eyes. He supported his explanation by showing pictures with such horizontal differences, stereograms, separately to the left and right eyes through a stereoscope he invented based on mirrors. When people looked at these flat, two-dimensional pictures, they experienced the illusion of three-dimensional depth.
Between 1849 and 1850, David Brewster, a Scottish scientist, improved the Wheatstone stereoscope by using lenses instead of mirrors, thus reducing the size of the device.
Brewster also discovered the "wallpaper effect". He noticed that staring at repeated patterns in wallpapers could trick the brain into matching pairs of them as coming from the same virtual object on a virtual plane behind the walls. This is the basis of wallpaper-style "autostereograms" (also known as single-image stereograms).
In 1939 Boris Kompaneysky published the first random dot stereogram containing an image of the face of Venus, intended to be viewed with a device.
In 1959, Bela Julesz, a vision scientist, psychologist and MacArthur Fellow, invented the random dot stereogram while working at Bell Laboratories on recognizing camouflaged objects from aerial pictures taken by spy planes. At the time, many vision scientists still thought that depth perception occurred in the eye itself, whereas now it is known to be a complex neurological process. Julesz used a computer to create a stereo pair of random-dot images which, when viewed under a stereoscope, caused the brain to see 3D shapes. This proved that depth perception is a neurological process.
Japanese designer Masayuki Ito, following Julesz, created a single image stereogram in 1970 and Swiss painter Alfons Schilling created a handmade single-image stereogram in 1974, after creating more than one viewer and meeting with Julesz. Having experience with stereo imaging in holography, lenticular photography, and vectography, he developed a random-dot method based on closely spaced vertical lines in parallax.
In 1979, Christopher Tyler of Smith-Kettlewell Institute, a student of Julesz and a visual psychophysicist, combined the theories behind single-image wallpaper stereograms and random-dot stereograms (the work of Julesz and Schilling) to create the first black-and-white "random-dot autostereogram" (also known as single-image random-dot stereogram) with the assistance of computer programmer Maureen Clarke using Apple II and BASIC. This type of autostereogram allows a person to see 3D shapes from a single 2D image without the aid of optical equipment. In 1991 computer programmer Tom Baccei and artist Cheri Smith created the first color random-dot autostereograms, later marketed as Magic Eye.