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Seeing in 3D: Its Impact on Your Eyes

Ah, the thrill of 3D entertainment! It's come a long way since its red-and-blue bespeckled beginnings. What used to be a night at the movies is now a super sensory experience, where just donning a pair of specs puts you in the middle of the action.

With movies like Avatar and UP breaking box-office records, and the onset of 3D televisions, networks, and gaming systems on the rise, to say 3D has made a comeback would be an understatement.

But with all of the buzz surrounding this 3D craze, we got to wondering: How does 3D impact our eyes? And can everyone see the three dimensional effects?

A Professional View

Dr. Roger Phelps, a VSP doctor in Ojai, CA and principal of OjaiEyes Optometry, said 3D can impact each person differently.

"I really enjoyed watching Avatar in 3D, but some of my patients did express fatigue or had a headache after seeing it," he said. "Some even said they felt nauseous during the movie."

So what causes these different experiences? "In many cases these patients had marginal binocular vision." Their ability to use both eyes together was not ideal.

"We see in three dimensions, because our eyes are separated by about 2.5 inches," Dr. Phelps explained. "We use both eyes to perceive true depth. Our brain interprets the slightly different view that each eye has of an object. The further away the object is, the less depth we can detect."

3D movies present two different images on screen, separated by a certain distance to enhance the perception of depth. Without 3D glasses—which filter the light and present different images to each eye—the scene on screen looks blurry and unclear. And if either eye is not in excellent focus, or if the eyes have a tendency to misalign with each other, it may be difficult for that person to comfortably enjoy a 3D film.

"About 5 percent of the population can't perceive 3D because they're monocular, which means they only use one eye to see," Phelps explained. "Another 25 percent of the population has borderline binocular vision, meaning they can use both eyes to perceive 3D, but it's difficult."

A Therapeutic Approach

If you're in the second group, you may feel tired, nauseous, or have a headache after watching a 3D movie. "This could mean your eye muscles have coordination problems." So what's a 3D fan with less-than-perfect eye coordination to do?

"Vision therapy—a series of special techniques that help you learn how to better coordinate your eyes—can help." There are actually some eye doctors who specialize in binocular vision therapy. Some of the techniques used in vision therapy include extended viewing of 3D images. While this can cause fatigue, temporary nausea and headaches, longer viewing times and special glasses can actually provide more comfort and enjoyment for the 3D viewing experience.

3D on the Horizon

With new 3D compatible televisions, the recent launch of 3D networks from ESPN and Discovery, a 3D system update for PlayStation 3, and the no-glasses-needed Nintendo 3DS slated for release next year, it may not be long before 3D entertainment makes its way into your living room.

But how much 3D is too much?

"Just use common sense," Dr. Phelps said. "While a two-hour movie might be fine at first, over three hours is more likely to cause temporary eyestrain. Most people will be able to develop longer viewing times with practice."

If you're having problems watching 3D movies or games, the best action you can take is to see your eye doctor. "A good eye doctor can help you determine the underlying cause."

Looking for an eye doctor? Visit vsp.com to find a doctor that's right for you. And check out this fun, informative video from Bill Nye the Science Guy to learn more about 3D and its effect on your eyes.