Apple’s new mobile operating system for the iPhone and iPad, iOS 7, is stark and minimal, yet dynamic. It makes frequent use of zoom and slide animations; the home screen boasts parallax, with icons apparently floating above subtly animating wallpaper. And it’s making people sick.
Triggers and symptoms vary, but TidePool mobile app developer Jenni Leder’s experience is not uncommon. A self-professed power-user, she frequently switches apps; but on iOS 7, this has caused headaches and feelings associated with motion sickness.
“I now have to close my eyes or cover the screen during transitions, which is ridiculous,” she told The Guardian, adding that there’s nowhere to hide: “It’s not apps that affect me, but accessing them. Tap a folder and the view zooms in. Tap an app and it’s like flying through the icon and landing in that app’s micro world — and I’m getting dizzy on the journey there.”
This wasn’t the case under iOS 6. That system wasn’t devoid of triggers (full-screen slide transitions being fairly common), but zooming was minimal and parallax was absent, as were gamified animation effects such as subtly shifting and sliding balloons in Messages.
The same minimal effect is true of stock Android and Windows Phone, which lack triggering animations and effects as dynamic and aggressive as those in iOS 7.
The severity of the jump from iOS 6 to iOS 7 means some organisations dealing with such motion-sickness problems are recommending that people with such conditions don’t upgrade their iOS devices. A number of affected users have reportedly switched iPhones that had already been upgraded to iOS 7 for models running iOS 6.
Reactions to screen-based systems — especially those utilising 3D effects — aren’t new. Cynthia Ryan, executive director of the Vestibular Disorders Association, says 3D effects can cause “intense nausea, dizziness and vertigo”, sometimes from general vision problems, but also from visual-vestibular conflict. She added symptoms “manifest more severely if a viewer already has a disorder of the vestibular system”.
The vestibular system is what gives us our sense of balance and sense of spatial awareness; it’s dependent on three mutually orthogonal fluid-filled canals in the inner ear. But when the vestibular system and visual system come into conflict, the effect can be distressing.
John Golding, professor of applied psychology at the University of Westminster, says visually-induced motion-sickness often arises from “the induction of perceived self-motion while at the same time the vestibular system and somatosensory systems signal that the body is in fact static”.
Similar symptoms can also arise from neurological conditions that cause central dizziness. Matt Gemmell, an independent iOS developer, thought it made sense that those with such conditions “would find some parts of the new iOS 7 interface uncomfortable or disorienting,” because it “makes more extensive use of animations — and those animations are more pronounced”.
The problem for those suffering is twofold: first, many other people refuse to believe a problem exists; secondly, there’s no fix. “We’re often contacted by people affected by moving images on screens, but people are affected in different ways — what’s a problem for one person may not be for another,” explained Natasha Harrington-Benton, director of the Ménière’s Society, a UK charity for peopel with disorders causing dizziness or balance disorders. “But these disorders can be extremely debilitating, despite there being no visible symptoms”.
Marissa Christina, a podcaster and writer about hidden disabilities, suggests there was a “lack of awareness” about such issues: “The words ‘dizziness’ and ‘vertigo’ don’t strike fear into people, but those living with severe cases are in ongoing angst awaiting the next unwarranted attack”.
The lack of a solution is the bigger problem. Apple provides a “Reduce Motion” option within the iOS 7 Settings app, but it is poorly labelled; it merely disables the parallax effect, but doesn’t stop zooming or sliding. Apple did not respond to requests for comment for this article. Which for now, leaves affected people on their own.
Golding’s suggestions to those affected include to “rest often”, avoid situations which reduce peripheral visual clues which give the correct information the person is static (in other words, don’t hold your iPad to your nose), or “just not use the device”. Those might suit some, but aren’t practical if you’re reliant on mobile devices.
What’s surprising is Apple’s apparent blind spot regarding balance and related concerns. Gemmell said: “Apple is more committed to accessibility than any other platform provider I know of.” This is borne out by the software’s otherwise plentiful aids for people with vision, hearing and motor-control issues.
However, technology writer Kirk McElhearn quesions whether Apple is ignoring people with vision and balance problems. He told the Guardian: “If Apple wants to truly cater to users with disabilities, it must look more closely at which features cause difficulties, make more effort to listen to users who find them hard to use, and enable them to be more comfortable”.
Christina said Apple should start by acknowledging the issue and “initiating an open dialog with those affected, developers, and Apple’s own accessibility team”. The company must, she said, “narrow in on what’s adversely affecting people and ensure features can be disabled”.
Gemmell says he is “sure suitable options to more comprehensively disable motion will be forthcoming”. In the meantime, he recommended those affected send an email to email@example.com, succinctly stating which animations are problematic and requesting the means to disable them.
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