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3-D Movie Reveals Vision Issues

Avatar-2-3-4The 3-D movie Avatar overtook Titanic as the top-grossing worldwide release of all-time. After spending 7 weeks atop the box office world, Avatar also beat out Titanic as the highest-grossing domestic box-office release in U.S. history. However, more than half of people aged 18-38 who went to the theater were not even able to enjoy the 3-D special effects, due to vision problems.

According to a New York Times article, a number of viewers complained Avatar gave them headaches, blurred vision, eyestrain, nausea, dizziness, and other symptoms like motion sickness. The article states incorrectly that this cannot be prevented. In fact, if you were unable to enjoy the 3-D effects or experienced any of these symptoms while watching the movie, it is likely you have a vision problem that is treatable.

To achieve three-dimensional (3-D) special effects in a movie, two separate images are projected onto the screen, with each image seen by one eye or the other. The images are then merged into one by your brain, making a third dimension. If the images aren’t recognized correctly by both your eyes, it will be very difficult to merge them into 3-D. Some people experience intermittent 3-D vision, which means one or both eyes can only maintain the fused image part of the time. Thus you could occasionally see the 3-D action, but not for the entire movie.

The real downside to not being able to see in 3-D is not that you can’t enjoy a movie’s special effects, but that your eyes aren’t performing as well as they were made to. Another term for seeing in 3-D is depth perception, or the ability to visually judge distances between objects as well as perceive depth and three-dimensional space. Some every-day actions that depend on depth perception include:

  • Throwing, catching or hitting a ball
  • Driving and parking a car
  • Threading a needle and sewing
  • Reaching out to shake another person’s hand
  • Pouring liquid into a container
  • Stepping off a curb or step

If you have trouble with depth perception, a vision evaluation with a developmental optometrist can reveal the root of the problem. There are three very common vision issues, all treatable, which can cause difficulty seeing in 3-D.

One of every 20 persons has some form of convergence insufficiency (CI), which makes it difficult to align the eyes well enough to see 3-D. About 5% of the population has either amblyopia (lazy eye) or strabismus (eye turn) which makes 3-D viewing impossible. With CI, the eyes don’t converge or cross properly, making focusing difficult and uncomfortable. A person with CI may experience eyestrain and fatigue when reading, doing homework, or computer work. The eyes may get watery or blurry when tired, or the reader may get headaches or other symptoms.

Having a lazy eye means one eye is weaker, causing the other to do most of the work. You may be able to physically see the difference in your eyes, or it may be completely unnoticeable to the naked eye. However, if one eye is working more than the other, the images sent to your brain will be altered. When your brain receives conflicting images or only one image, comprehension problems can result, as well as many of the above physical symptoms. Eyestrain is particularly common because one eye is working overtime to carry the other. Obviously if only one eye is sending the brain an image, you cannot see in 3-D.

With strabismus, if the eye is even just slightly turned from the other, it will send conflicting images to the brain. This can cause eye distress, headaches, and comprehension issues, because two different images are fighting each other. Hyperactivity then becomes a natural response to strabismus, and many children are misdiagnosed with ADHD because of it. Severe strabismus is often noticeable physically, but a slight turn is undetectable to the naked eye and very common. Contrary to popular belief, surgery can only cosmetically align the eyes, it does not correct the vision problem, which  causes a disruption in the connection between the eyes and brain.

Children with any of these vision problems will often not perform up to their capabilities in school, because homework requires good eye alignment skills. Due to the discomfort caused by their vision, some children will become hyperactive and have a poor attention span or even behavioral troubles. Adults may avoid reading or near work because it makes their eyes uncomfortable. Most of us push the limits of abusing our eyes daily through the visual demands of computers, cell phones, ipods, and video games. If your eyes struggle to work together, you’ll struggle in other areas of your life as well.

A developmental optometrist can give a thorough developmental vision evaluation if you’ve experienced any of the above symptoms with your vision. Near vision skills such as focusing and tracking are necessary for homework and computer usage. The standard 20/20 eye chart is outdated and not capable of assessing your near vision skills, as it only checks distance eyesight.

If one of the above conditions is discovered, a program of vision therapy (VT) with a developmental optometrist can help you. VT is an individualized program of eye activities and activities tailored specifically to your needs. Many vision skills can be improved with VT, including depth perception, focusing, tracking, peripheral vision, attention skills, comprehension levels, visualization and hand-eye coordination. VT can provide relief for headaches, eyestrain, fatigue, and motion sickness. And if watching 3-D movies is something you’d like to enjoy, VT can help there as well.

Hot on the heels of Avatar’s success, Walt Disney Studios has announced that Alice in Wonderland will also be released in 3-D in March. If you missed out on the 3-D effects of Avatar, you still have a chance to enjoy them at the theater. But if you can’t experience falling down the rabbit hole with Alice in 3-D, you should have your vision evaluated to discover why.

If you have trouble seeing the 3-D special effects in movies or would like more information about improving your vision skills, please contact developmental optometrist Dr. Julie Steinhauer, OD, FCOVD at