What Causes 3D Sickness and How to Prevent It

Updated on August 7, 2018
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I mostly write about tech and digital business. This is my experience with 3D sickness.

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The fun and amazement of 3D movies can be enough to make some people really sick. Getting sick from 3D movies isn't rare. In fact, it's a widespread condition. It's been documented that during the very first showings of an IMAX 3D presentation a portion of the audience suffered from motion sickness. Just like how some people get seasickness or car sickness, some people will get 3D sickness. You'll be in for a rough ride if you have it. This article will explore everything from what causes this sickness to what new technologies are being invented to correct it.

What to Know About 3D Motion Sickness

  1. What causes 3D motion sickness?
  2. Who gets it and what does it feel like?
  3. What is simulation sickness?
  4. How do you prevent 3D motion sickness?
  5. What are companies doing to lessen 3D sickness?

1. What Causes 3D Motion Sickness?

In order to further understand why 3D sickness happens, it's important to understand what motion sickness (or kinetosis) is. Motion sickness is an instance when there's an incongruity between your visually perceived sense of motion and your body's ability to maintain its own balance. Your vestibular system, located within your inner ear, is responsible for maintaining balance. This system constantly sends signals to the neural structures that control your eyes and signal to your muscles. When there's a disconnect between this system and what your eyes think they are seeing, you'll start to feel symptoms like nausea, dizziness, and general fatigue.

The worst symptom of motion sickness (regardless if its related to watching 3D movies or not) is nausea. Vomiting as a result of motion sickness will not relieve itself. Unlike vomiting from having the flu, the feeling of nausea will not go away immediately afterward!

The reason why this nausea lingers is because your brain is acting like the "middleman" between what your eyes see and the balance your vestibular system is trying to maintain. If your vestibular system signals to your brain that you're perfectly still, but your eyes clearly signal that you're in motion, your brain makes an involuntary reaction as a result of this disagreement. Your vestibular system gets confused and believes that you are under the influence of a toxin. Therefore, it induces vomiting in an attempt to remove the toxin from your system.

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2. Who Gets It and What Does It Feel Like?

As with any other kind of motion sickness, some people get it, and others never will.

The US Army Research Institute did a test study on the effects of simulation sickness. Half of their subjects experienced effects from a 3D flight simulator. The majority of subjects that experienced 3D sickness had their symptoms go away within an hour. Some had those symptoms for three or four hours, and a minority experienced them for around six hours.

Will you get sick from watching 3D movies? As you may have imagined, there's only one way to find out—you'll have to try it!

What Does It Feel Like? My Experience With 3D Sickness.

I first experienced 3D sickness on January 15, 2010. While my friends were having a great time watching the 3D presentation of "Avatar" at the AMC theater, I was having a completely different experience. About an hour into the movie, I started feeling really sick, and I mean, really sick.

It wasn't the flu, nor was it some kind of food poisoning. It was actually motion sickness from the 3D effects. It was taking a massive toll on my eyes, head, and stomach. It wasn't just me, either. A friend of mine was also getting the same symptoms.

It didn't help that we were all sitting in the front row of the movie theater (since the show was sold out). Having to stare up at the screen at a 45-degree angle isn't a great experience in the best of circumstances, let alone when the experience is amplified by 3D effects.

I started feeling strange within the first half hour to 40 minutes of the movie. After about 45 minutes or so, that feeling quickly progressed. I was flat out sick! The symptoms I experienced were extreme nausea, sweating, and a bad headache. Near the end of the movie, I felt as if I had drank five shots of Jack Daniels and three pints of beer on an empty stomach.

That was only the half of it. When the movie was over and I stood up, I experienced extreme vertigo. It was as if my head wanted to do a 180-degree spin. How I managed not to hurl throughout this entire ordeal was nothing short of pure talent on my part.

What's crazy is that (up to that point) I had never experienced motion sickness in my life. I had never felt sick in a car, on a boat, or on a plane! The experience was new and truly horrible.

3. Simulation Sickness

The type of motion sickness most related to 3D sickness is called "simulation sickness." This is the kind of motion sickness that some people experience from playing video games for extended periods of time, especially video games that have a 3-dimensional depth of view (3D graphics, not particularly games that require 3D glasses).

4. How to Prevent 3D Sickness

According to a recent news brief, one of the best ways to treat 3D sickness is to simply shut one of your eyes for a moment. This will basically nullify your brain's disconnect between your stationary body and the seemingly mobile environment you're looking at. If your 3D sickness gets progressively worse, try to close both eyes for awhile. This is your only hope in a movie theater. At home, you can simply stop the movie and come back to it later.

Take it from me, if you ever go to a public viewing of a 3D movie, do yourself a favor and choose seats as far back as you can. Remember, taking off your 3D glasses will not always make things better. Often, it will make everything worse because of how disorienting the images are without the glasses. If you take off the glasses, you'll be looking at an image that is incongruently overlapped on top of another image. This will confuse the signal that your eyes are sending to your brain.

If your 3D sickness has gotten to an extreme level, there's practically nothing you can do to feel better. The entire remainder of the movie will trigger more nausea, regardless of if your 3D glasses are on or not. The best possible advice in this case is to simply not look at the screen, or leave the theater.

There are over-the-counter medications that will help with motion sickness, specifically Dramamine. There are also several theories and tests that suggest using ginger root as an effective cure for motion sickness. Ginger root is widely available in tablet form at any pharmacy or nutrition store.

Will I Never Be Able to Watch a 3D Movie Again?

People who get 3D sickness are often concerned about whether or not they'll ever be able to watch 3D movies again. The answer to that is simply unknown, and depends on the individual. For instance, I've sat through 3D movies at Universal Studios and they never phased me. However, watching Avatar turned out to be a tragedy.

You should try different things during your next viewing, including:

  • Sitting further from the screen
  • Taking breaks
  • Sitting facing the center of the screen, not the left or right corners

Perhaps overcoming 3D motion sickness is an acquired talent. Regardless, it's something you won't see the last of. 3D entertainment now exists at home as well. And, with so many movies coming out in 3D, you'll need to find a method for overcoming your sickness.

5. What's Being Done to Lessen 3D Sickness?

There are a couple technological measures in place that can continue to lessen the possibility or effects of 3D sickness. A film technique called "active depth cut" lessens the possibility of experiencing this sickness by using smooth transactions between scene changes in 3D movies. This greatly reduces the typical elements that trigger motion sickness. This effect was used extensively in the 3D DVD concert, "U2 3D."

Other advances will involve the modification of 3D glasses themselves. NASA has experimented with reducing "space sickness," a kind of motion sickness, by modifying stroboscopic LCD shutter glasses. These types of glasses will undoubtedly hit the market with the progression of the coming 3D TV market.

My Second Attempt to Watch a 3D Movie

On May 14, 2010, I bit the bullet and decided to give Clash of the Titans 3D a try. This time around, I got there 15 minutes early and sat in the very back row, in the center. A half hour passed with no 3D sickness. After an hour and a half there was still no 3D sickness (not even a slight headache).

Third time's a charm! When seeing Tron Legacy in 3D (while sitting in the back row/center of the theater), I had yet another pleasant experience. No sweating, no nausea, no dizziness. Nothing!

My biggest mistake when I first saw Avatar was to go ahead and watch the movie in the front row. When you watch a movie that close up, the objects and visuals seem to actually exit the screen. This is not the case when you're a proper distance away. While the screen will give you a sense of depth (as it should), the objects will not leave the screen in such a disorienting way.

Have you ever gotten sick from watching a 3D movie?

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