When a major blockbuster releases in theaters, you can almost guarantee it will be accompanied by a 3D version. In fact, sometimes it seems the 3D version is the only one available.
However, as 3D becomes the de facto cinema experience, should we become concerned that the technology is straining our eyes as well as our wallets? Could 3D be damaging our vision.
Is 3D Bad For Your Eyes?
Well, to prevent you from immediately bombarding your optician with panicked phone calls, I'll give you quick short answer: No, 3D isn't bad for your eyes, but it's not exactly good for them either.
This all comes down to the fact our eyes are not actually designed to deal with artificial 3D, and as such they have to adjust in ways they were not designed to. Although, so far, experts believe this isn't dangerous, it can cause temporary discomfort in many people. However, the issue could potentially become greater once 3D devices - such as television and gaming - become more widespread and our eyes are subjected to 3D for longer periods of time.
The issue is that our eyes are forced to focus and converge on different points in quick succession, something they're not really designed to do. Oscar winning film editor and sound designer (and rampant 3D critic) Walter Murch outlined the problem in a letter he sent to film critic Roger Ebert. He explained:
...The deeper problem is that the audience must focus their eyes at the plane of the screen -- say it is 80 feet away. This is constant no matter what. But their eyes must converge at perhaps 10 feet away, then 60 feet, then 120 feet, and so on, depending on what the illusion is. So 3D films require us to focus at one distance and converge at another. And 600 million years of evolution has never presented this problem before. All living things with eyes have always focused and converged at the same point...
Avatar was one of the first movies to introduce a new era of 3D viewing:
He adds that although our eyes and brains can handle this, it's not something they were actually designed to do. He continues:
We can do this. 3D films would not work if we couldn't. But it is like tapping your head and rubbing your stomach at the same time, difficult. So the "CPU" of our perceptual brain has to work extra hard, which is why after 20 minutes or so many people get headaches. They are doing something that 600 million years of evolution never prepared them for. This is a deep problem, which no amount of technical tweaking can fix. Nothing will fix it short of producing true "holographic" images.
Of course, there are likely many people reading this who have never suffered headaches or motion sickness from 3D films. Well that's good news. But, it is likely that those who do feel discomfort usually do so due to underlying vision or eyes disorders, which brings us to a fortunate side-effect of 3D films.
Are 3D Movies Actually Good For You?
As far as we know, 3D movies do not cause these issues, but only temporarily exacerbate them. This means 3D movies can actually be a relatively effective way of discovering these issues in the first place. If you feel constant discomfort from watching 3D movies, it's possible you may be suffering from amblyopia (an imbalance in visual strength between eyes), strabismus (misaligned eyes) or other focusing and depth perception issues. The good news is that most of these disorders are treatable by opticians and optometrists.
So far research cannot conclusive prove or disprove the long-term effects of 3D technology, but considering most children's natural 3D vision is fully developed by age 3 it's unlikely to cause major issues.
The gimmick of 3D movies was mocked in an episode of Arrested Development:
However, Murch is more adamant about another issue related to 3D movies: they do not provide a better viewing experience. The veteran editor, who has worked on films such as Apocalypse Now and The English Patient, argued that 3D actually provides a poor visual image. Generally, the image is darker and smaller, while movement strobes much earlier in 3D movies than it does in 2D. Furthermore, he feels 3D also breaks the immersion of cinema, adding:
3D films remind the audience that they are in a certain "perspective" relationship to the image. It is almost a Brechtian trick. Whereas if the film story has really gripped an audience they are "in" the picture in a kind of dreamlike "spaceless" space. So a good story will give you more dimensionality than you can ever cope with.
He ultimately concludes:
So: dark, small, strobe-y, headache inducing, alienating. And expensive. The question is: how long will it take people to realize and get fed up?
Well, considering 3D-heavy movies are currently still making major bucks at the box office (Avatar still tops the global box office, while Jurassic World also did incredibly well), I can imagine they're going to be around for quite a while to come.