Struggling to see 3D movies? That may just say something about how your eyes work

If you think settling into a megaplex for a three-dimensional ride through a faraway alien land is a thrilling technological wonder, get ready for another future shock.

It may be just a matter of time before your annual eye exam starts off with your doctor asking what you thought of 'Avatar.'

That's because emerging academic research indicates that 3D movies may be a useful tool in screening for eye conditions that aren't always caught in a typical vision test.

And though it sounds like science fiction, this academic frontier is being explored right now by researchers at Pacific University and on Thursday, the school of optometry will open the doors of its latest research lab, a 3D screening room calibrated by the 3D gurus at THX, to the public.

The 3D Performance Eye Clinic, housed in Pacific's EyeClinic Beaverton, will be used to gauge how patients are perceiving 3D images projected on the high-performance screen as a means to figure out if they're seeing the real 3D world correctly.

'The virtual 3D that is shown on displays requires that the eyes perform differently than in the real world of depth,' said Jim Sheedy, director of Pacific's Vision Performance Institute. 'Our research investigates how we can best identify those who are having difficulty performing in this new way and hence obtain symptoms.'

The virtual 3D effect

When movie-goers watch films like 'Avatar,' James Cameron's three-dimensional blockbuster, the glasses they wear split the image on the screen into two images, one for your left eye and one for your right.

The brain then interpolates the two images into a field of vision that simulates real-world depth perception.

Some people experience eye fatigue or dizziness while watching 3D, but so far researchers haven't been able to identify any long-term vision problems caused by watching movies or games in 3D.

Instead, by evaluating the viewer's ability to view simulated 3D, vision problems that have always been present can come to the fore.

That's a boon for researchers like Sheedy.

'3D appears to be a good screener for eye problems that should be treated,' Sheedy said.

3D frontiers

The emergence of 3D movies as a blockbuster phenomenon in the past few years has refocused researchers on the question of what it does to the eyes.

No longer is 3D a gimmick seen through red and blue paper glasses. Now it's a widespread phenomenon.

Sheedy said his work in the 1980s and 1990s looking into the impact of computer screens on worker's eyes, an impact summarized as 'computer vision syndrome,' put him in a perfect situation to tackle the new challenges presented by the proliferation of 3D screens.

'3D is the most current challenge that electronic displays present to the eyes. It appears we are headed towards 3D Vision Syndrome,' Sheedy said.

And that's where THX comes in. Most moviegoers know the company, founded in 1983 as a division of 'Star Wars' creator George Lucas' production company Lucasfilm, from its logo and accompanying 'deep note,' heard in any THX certified movie theater before the first reel.

The company began as a means to ensure that audiences heard a movie as the director intended it to be heard.

Now, with the emergence of 3D technology, THX has moved into 3D certification.

'We're in business to save the world from bad sound and pictures,' joked John Dahl, senior fellow and director of education at THX.

THX donated more than $100,000 worth of labor to the project. LG, Planar Systems, Intel, Nike and Vision Service Plan Global also contributed to the clinic.

Dahl said those investments will help the 3D industry figure out how to improve the experience for viewers.

While 3D films have been screened in theaters since the 1950s, the emerging market for home 3D devices, including televisions, game systems and consumer electronics, is changing the game.

In a theater setting, variables like lighting or the distance viewers sit from the screen can be controlled, but television manufacturers don't have any control over how it's used by consumers.

Better experience

That could impact the experience of viewers, especially viewers with 3D vision problems, Dahl said.

'We do understand how to make a better quality 2D image and we understand a lot of the engineering issues around creating 3D,' Dahl said.

'All the problems that you get in 2D are magnified when you get to 3D.'

The hope is that by understanding better how eyes see in virtual 3D, studios and device makers can make the 3D experience better, and less taxing for those who have trouble seeing it.

And in the process of identifying who has trouble seeing in 3D, researchers at Pacific can identify ways to help cure any underlying conditions causing the discomfort in the theater.

'It's very clear that there's a potential here in helping people to enjoy entertainment,' Dahl said. But that's not all.

'It's really cool that this goes beyond watching movies, as much as we enjoy watching movies,' he added.

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