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'Avatar': A pandora's box of brain confusion, headaches?

January 8, 2010 |  5:05 pm

"Avatar" may be dazzling people with its immersive technology, but if you’re one of those people who gets  a headache after seeing it or any other 3-D film, there’s hope —  or, at least, an explanation.

According to Steven Nusinowitz, associate professor at UCLA's Jules Stein Eye Institute, roughly 20% of the population can get eye strain or headaches from watching movies in 3-D. That's because the new 3-D technology can't completely simulate the complex visual system in our brains.

Here’s the basic breakdown: The new 3-D technology works by presenting a different image to each eye  and rapidly switching between the two, as frequently as 140 times per second. "The two eyes are getting separate images,which are then integrated in the brain into three-dimensions," Nusinowitz says.

The problem with that is that in real life, he says, "you're also getting information about depth from the way your eyes converge on a point, how your eyes are pointed at the target. In the movie theater, while they're simulating 3-D, they're not compensating for that by modifying the convergence of the eye. If you don't have that information, your brain gets confused on what it's looking at, and in some cases, that can produce discomfort."

Director James Cameron did try to mitigate the eyestrain factor when making "Avatar"  by working with the new Fusion Camera System, which controls for convergence. "If you're looking at Neyteri [the blue alien inhabited by Zoe Saldana], our convergence will be set on Neyteri. If our focus is on the tree behind Neyteri, our convergence will be on the tree behind Neyteri," says producer Jon Landau, adding that their approach to 3-D was different than the traditional approach. "We didn't want gags coming off the screen. We wanted to create a window into the world for the audience." 

But it only goes so far, as the unfortunate few who wander out of Pandora's visually stunning world with fatigue or headache soon learn. So while Cameron might be king of the world, he's not an ophthalmological pioneer — at least not yet.

"It's not perfect," acknowledges Landau, noting that there are also "limitations in exhibition. And not everybody sees 3-D. It's above 5% of the population that does not. It's a little bit like when people go to a concert. One person wants it louder, and one thinks it's too loud. It's a little subjective."

— Rachel Abramowitz


Beyond Pandora? Jim Cameron talks about an 'Avatar' sequel

James Cameron on 'Avatar': Like 'Matrix,' it opens doorways

LAT REVIEW: 'Avatar' restores a sense of wonder to moviegoing

Photo of Jake Sully's avatar in "Avatar" from WETA/20th Century Fox.