Is iOS 7 Making You Sick? The Tail Could Be Wagging the Dog

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iOS 7 has a peculiar new feature you might have noticed. Apple refers to it as a “parallax effect.” Apple made a minor show of it when it announced iOS 7 at WWDC in June, but then most of us forgot about it. Now that iOS 7’s here, it’s raising something of a ruckus because it may be causing some to feel queasy or experience headaches.

Parallax is a fancy way of referring to foreground and background motion as your line of sight changes. If you move your head left or right slightly while staring through a window’s open blinds, for instance, the objects in the distance — out my office window, a belt of autumn-splashed trees — appear to move in relation to the blinds and vice versa.

Apple simulates this in iOS 7 by tying the phone’s gyroscope and accelerometer to the operating system’s visual overlay. If you twist or tilt the phone while viewing the screen, the interface appears to float slightly above whatever background image you’ve chosen.

Well, “float” — the sense of three-dimensionality isn’t quite there. Foreground information seems to slide over whatever background I’ve chosen like one piece of paper scraping across another; the slenderized Lock Screen time and data glide over a picture of my 14-month-old; the home screen icons skate across that image in contrary motion as I fiddle the phone around in my hand.

It’s a nonessential, incidental characteristic of iOS 7 that has nothing to do with the icons’ new anti-skeuomorophic look; it’s all effect, offering no functional advantage. Think of it as like enabling magnification in OS X’s dock.

It may also be causing some of you to feel queasy or experience headaches. It’s impossible to know how many in relation to the iOS 7 populace at large, but there’s a thread on Apple’s official discussion boards slowly filling with users claiming it’s an issue. That’s prompted plenty of coverage and at least one news outlet to solicit advice from a psychologist who admits he “[hasn’t] done any experiments with this phone,” as well as a professor of kinesiology (someone who studies body movement) who, having done no experimentation with iOS 7 himself, says simply “I’m not surprised to hear this about iOS 7.”

I shouldn’t need to say this, but I will anyway: Proceeding with caution when potential correlations appear to arise — a new visual effect and claims of nausea or headaches — is paramount. Even if iOS 7’s animations are making some feel sick, crowdsourcing can lead to groupthink (people drawing false correlations between feeling off for another unrelated reason), and the media piling onto the issue can lead to a skewed sense of said issue’s severity and/or impact.

There may be something here, it’s just hard to say how much of a something we’re talking about at this point. Parallax motion and the way iOS 7 zooms when launching or exiting an app could, for instance, be messing with those who suffer from balance disorders. I don’t personally, but I have never, to this day, been able to finish playing the first-person computer game Half-Life 2. For some reason after playing for 20 to 30 minutes, I begin to feel nauseous in a way I don’t playing other first-person games. I’m also in the minority of Half-Life 2 players. While I can find threads with users who claim to have my problem, most play Valve’s massively popular and critically acclaimed game motion sickness-free.

That said, if you’re feeling sick and believe the problem’s related to iOS 7’s parallax motion effect, you can disable it by following these instructions:

1. Go to Settings > General > Accessibility.

2. Scroll down and select Reduce Motion.

3. Enable by tapping the slider.

And whether these new iOS 7 effects are causing motion sickness or no, I’d like to see Apple make all of them optional, if only to increase navigational tempo. I’m no fan of the way iOS 7’s icons seem to drop in from above when you unlock the phone, for instance. It’s roughly a second, granted, but over time, with upwards of hundreds of screen unlocks taking place in the course of a day, those seconds add up.