Little Known Side Effects of 3-D Viewing

Natalie Southwick Globe Correspondent / September 4, 2010

The “extended’’ version of “Avatar’’ that hit theaters last weekend might give some viewers a headache. Whether they should blame the 3-D technology is up for debate.

As 3-D technology has become a routine part of the moviegoing experience — and spreads to TV and video games — some consumers are wondering whether staring through those glasses for hours could be harmful. Many people have reported headaches and nausea after watching a 3-D movie, and some 3-D TV sets even come with warnings. But because the explosion of 3-D is a recent phenomenon, there isn’t any research on long-term effects.

“We all live in a 3-D world regularly, and no one’s really had problems with that,’’ said Dr. Matthew Gearinger, associate professor of ophthalmology and pediatrics at the University of Rochester Medical Center’s Flaum Eye Institute. “The kind of false depth that 3-D movies give shouldn’t stress [eyes] more than walking around.’’

Once rare, 3-D has quickly become commonplace. Most animated movies are now released in the format, and this year 10 major films, from “Toy Story 3’’ to “Piranha 3D,’’ have opened in 3-D. And it isn’t just movies anymore. ESPN broadcast 25 World Cup soccer matches on its ESPN 3D network this summer and plans to show 13 NCAA Division I football games in 3-D this season. Verizon FiOS customers saw the Patriots’ final preseason game Thursday night in 3-D. Panasonic, Samsung, and Sony sell 3-D TVs, and last week Sony and Toshiba announced they have begun developing 3-D TVs that will not require the awkward, costly glasses that have been necessary. 3-D, it seems, is here to stay.

“3-D movies have been profitable, and as long as they’re profitable, 3-D in the cinema is going to last,’’ said Matthew Brennesholtz, senior analyst at Insight Media, which does research and consulting work for the display industry. “Certainly not all movies will be made in 3-D — maybe 20 percent — but it’s not a fad. TV is a little different. So far there’s been no particular groundswell for TV. It’s not clear it’s going to be profitable.’’ While tickets to 3-D films can command higher prices — $3 to $4 more is common — that’s not an option for TV networks.

3-D film works essentially by mimicking the processes of human eyes.

The screen alternates two slightly different two-dimensional images — one for each eye — that the viewer’s eyes then fuse together to create the illusion of depth. 3-D televisions operate on something called eye-sequential technique and require glasses with electronic components in the lenses. The TV projects an image for the left eye, then the right eye; as the images alternate, the viewer looks through the corresponding lens, while the other lens becomes opaque. 3-D movies operate the same way but use a simpler method that allows theaters to use cheaper glasses containing no electronics.

It may look great, but the technology isn’t perfect. At a recent screening of “Piranha 3D’’ in Boston, most of the 20 or so moviegoers reported feeling mild dizziness or headaches after watching the movie.

“It makes my eyes tired,’’ said Jonathan Costello, 20, of Medfield.

In February, Consumer Reports reported that 15 percent of moviegoers experience headaches after viewing a 3-D movie. A more serious warning followed in April: Samsung cautioned its Australian customers, saying its new 3-D TVs could cause dizziness, nausea, lightheadedness, or convulsions — especially in epileptics and young children — and advised customers not to place the televisions in locations where viewers could injure themselves if they fell after viewing 3-D programming.

“I considered it like the health warning on cigarette packages,’’ Brennesholtz said. “Nobody pays any attention to it.’’

Because 3-D technology is relatively new, especially for televisions, some content suffers from poor production, which can cause some of the noticeable side effects. If many objects appear to be floating in front of the screen, or the film features rapid cuts and scene changes, the viewer’s eyes constantly have to adjust, which doctors say can cause fatigue. Production companies also create problems when they try to retrofit content shot in 2-D for a 3-D screen, or vice versa, because it wasn’t designed for that format.

Dr. David G. Hunter, chief of ophthalmology at Children’s Hospital Boston and an associate professor of ophthalmology at Harvard Medical School, agreed that some aspects of 3-D content can tire eyes.

“You’re in an artificial 3-D world where everything is in focus and your eyes have to retain alignment on everything exactly right,’’ said Hunter, who is also a clinical correspondent for the American Academy of Ophthalmology. “Your perspective of the camera is moving quickly and in unpredictable ways. It can be like a roller coaster. If you do this for a few hours, then there’s a good chance you’ll end up with some eyestrain and fatigue.’’

Still, he added, the effect is temporary, and disappears once most people remove the glasses.

“It’s not like our offices are full of people who’ve become disabled because they watched a 3-D movie for too long,’’ he said. “Obviously people are enjoying the experience.’’

Doctors estimate that at least 10 percent of people have some abnormality — such as “lazy eye’’ or imperfect depth perception — that prevents them from viewing 3-D content correctly. These people — along with those prone to motion sickness — constitute the majority of cases of headaches, dizziness, and nausea among 3-D viewers, Hunter said.

While the Samsung warning might have some parents concerned about the impact on children, there is no evidence that 3-D affects younger eyes differently from older ones. In fact, children might be better at processing 3-D content.

“It’s probably actually easier for kids,’’ Gearinger said. “They can focus for longer on things near them, compared to someone who’s 42 and starting to wear reading glasses.’’

Courtesy of the Doctors at Shady Grove Eye and Vision Care; Optometrists, Ophthalmologists and Opticians working together to help you see better.  Serving the Rockville, Potomac and Gaithersburg Maryland suburbs of Washington, DC for over 40 years. For more information visit or call (301) 670-1212

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