3D Sickness: When 3D Movies Make You Queasy

Updated on February 11, 2017
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I write mostly about tech and digital business. This is my experience with 3D sickness.

3D Sickness: 3D movies make me sick...literally!

The fun and amazement of 3D movies can be enough to make some people really sick. Learn more about 3D motion sickness, and how you'll be in for a rough ride if you have it, given the new technologies about to come out.

My Experience with 3D Sickness

It was January 15, 2010. While many 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, and it was really taking its toll on my eyes, head . . . and stomach. It wasn't just me, either—a friend also started getting the same symptoms.

It probably didn't help that we were all sitting in the front row of the movie theater, since the show was sold out and we arrived exactly on time. 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.

The first half hour to 40 minutes was the time period where I started feeling strange. After about 45 minutes or so, that feeling quickly progressed to being flat out sick. The symptoms: extreme nausea, sweating and a bad headache. Near the end of the movie, I could explain the way I felt to be similar to that of drinking 5 shots of Jack Daniels and 3 pints of beer on an empty stomach, and then waking up the next morning.

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 really crazy is that I have never gotten motion sickness in my life . . . not in a car, on a boat, nor on a plane!

What a 3D movie typically looks like without glasses. If you've gotten sick from watching Avatar in 3D, I apologize for posting this image and bringing back bad memories :)
What a 3D movie typically looks like without glasses. If you've gotten sick from watching Avatar in 3D, I apologize for posting this image and bringing back bad memories :)

About 3D Motion Sickness

Getting sick from 3D movies isn't rare, actually: it's a widespread condition. Even one the very first showings of an IMAX presentation documented a portion of the audience suffering from motion sickness. Just like how some people get seasickness or car sickness, others will get 3D sickness.

In order to further understand why 3D sickness happens, it's important to understand what motion sickness (or kinetosis) is: it's an instance where 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 also, signals to your muscles. When there's a disconnect between this system vs. 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 3D or not) is nausea. Vomiting that comes from 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 happens is because your brain is acting like the "middleman" between what your eyes see, and the balance your vestibular system is maintaining. 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 to this disagreement. It 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. Crazy stuff, isn't it?

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).

Who Gets 3D Sickness?

As with any other kind of motion sickness, some people get it, some simply never do.

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!

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

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Getting 3D sickness? Close one eye!
Getting 3D sickness? Close one eye!

How to Prevent 3D Sickness

According to a news brief I've seen on the topic, one of the best ways to treat 3D sickness is to simply shut one of your eyes for a moment. This will basically nullify the disconnect going on in your brain, between your stationary body and the seemingly mobile environment you're looking at. If your 3D sickness is 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 the public viewing of a 3D movie, do yourself a favor by getting seats as far back as you can. Oh, and taking off your 3D glasses will not make things better...if anything, it will make everything worse if you watch a 3D movie without glasses. The reason being: you'll be looking at an image incongruently overlapped on top of another image, which 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 point toward Ginger Root as an effective cure for motion sickness: ginger root is widely available in tablet form at any pharmacy or nutrition store.

So, I'll Never Watch 3D Movies Again?

One of the biggest concerns of people who get 3D sickness is if they will ever be able to watch 3D movies normally throughout their lifetime. 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. Avatar, however, turned out to be a tragedy in terms of the symptoms I experienced.

Perhaps it's best to try different things during your next viewing: sit further from the screen. Take breaks. Sit 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 certainly won't see the last of, with the coming of home 3D entertainment right around the corner!

A pair of LCD shutter glasses.
A pair of LCD shutter glasses.

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 by using smooth transactions between scene changes in 3D movies, greatly reducing the typical elements that trigger motion sickness. This effect was used extensively in the 3D DVD concert, "U2 3D."

Other advances will most likely 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. Glasses such as these will undoubtedly hit the market with the progression of the coming 3D TV market.

Clash of the Titans 3D
Clash of the Titans 3D

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 by - no 3D sickness...an hour and a half, still no 3D sickness. Not even a slight headache.

Third time's a charm: after 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 elements seemingly exit the screen. It's not the case when you're a proper distance - the screen will give you a sense of depth (as it should) instead of objects leaving the screen.

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