Focal Attraction It's computer art, but you have to see it to believe it

August 21, 1993|By Arthur Hirsch | Arthur Hirsch,Staff Writer

The main attraction lately at art and print stores looks like a pastel portrait of bad TV reception.

Yet, folks stop and stare at these fuzzy images. They step forward and furrow their brows; they step back, squat down, stand up. They look, then try not to look.

A couple of Texans created these computer-generated prints and call them "Holusions," which, when viewed just the right way present the illusion of a scene in three dimensions. Without the use of 3-D.

Available in Maryland since the spring, they could be the biggest optical phenomenon to hit the American shopping mall since Elvis sightings.

"They're just going like crazy," says Ted Jackson, a sales clerk at the Art Emporium in the Marley Station Mall in Anne Arundel County, where a clutch of browsers gathers one evening to gaze into the picture frames like house cats transfixed at the living room window.

It's a tossup which is more entertaining, looking for the three-dimensional image or watching other people try it.

"I see a whole bunch of dots with different colors. I don't see anything," says Sarah Engelskirch, a Pasadena teen-ager.

Her friend, Annmarie Jacobs, of Pasadena, gazes into the

22-by-28-inch picture marked "Dinosaurs!" It appears the dinosaurs have fled, however, leaving behind an airy field of blue, green, amber.

In minutes, though, Miss Jacobs experiences a vision.

"Oh my God," she says, "That's weird. I can see. There's one on the ground crawling. There's one flying. I can see it."

John and Joan O'Dell of Baltimore hunker down in front of a blue-green blur marked "Lady Liberty." He's instructing his wife on the proper viewing technique: focusing on a reflection in the glass, not the surface of the picture itself.

"Look at my foot," says Mr. O'Dell.

"I'm looking at your foot," she says. And, lo and behold, she sees the reflection of his foot. The Statue of Liberty does not appear. Minutes pass. Ms. O'Dell stares, then cries out like a satisfied customer in a faith-healing tent.

"Oh, I see it, oh I see it," she says. "Look, you can see right through it."

Eric Focht of Annapolis shakes his head in despair.

"I've never been able to see these things," he says. "I've stared at it and stared at it. Maybe there's something wrong with my eyes."

Produced by an Irving, Texas, company called NVision Grafix Inc., the prints -- which sell for about $20 each -- are the work of Mike Bielinski and Paul Herber, two 28-year-old men who met at the University of Texas at Arlington. Mr. Bielinski studied computer science, Mr. Herber studied art and engineering.

"I've been involved in the technology several years," says Mr. Bielinski, who was working as a computer programmer before starting NVision. "Through a process of evolution, we decided to try to turn it into a business."

It took the men about two years of part-time work to perfect the computer image, says Steven E. Kersen, NVision's marketing vice president. NVision sold the first prints outside the Dallas area last August. Appropriately enough, they contained a picture of a B-2 Stealth bomber, the plane designed to fly undetected by radar. The collection now includes eight images with a ninth due to appear next week, a scene of the Resurrection.

Mr. Kersen and Mr. Bielinski reveal no details of how the images are made. But Mr. Bielinski says the prints are an improved form of something called a random-dot stereogram.

Computer graphics fans have been making these for years, according to a 1990 article in Stereo World magazine by Paul S. Boyer, a professor at Fairleigh Dickinson University in New Jersey. Put simply, one dot-and--- image is produced, then a copy created and shifted slightly horizontally, the article reports.

The optical principle is similar to the old 3-D movies. Those used a double image and special glasses to duplicate binocular vision. That is, each eye sees a slightly different view of the same thing. The disparity between the two perspectives enhances depth perception.

That's the reason it is necessary to focus past the surface of the print to see the "Holusion" image, says Dr. Edlow.

"With any of these binocular functions, if you focus on the plane of the paper, you won't see it," says Dr. Edlow. That's because the image itself is not in focus on the surface.

The small marks that make up the image are a distance apart, therefore the eyes need to pick these out before the point where the two eyes focus. Focusing on a point in the distance -- say, a reflection in the glass frame -- increases the disparity between the view of each eye at the point where it strikes the picture surface.

Once you find the picture, you can then focus on it and still see it because the eyes and brain make sense of the image and hold it, compensating for the disparity, Dr. Edlow says.

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