3-D Video: Hurting Our Eyes... or Saving Them?

From television to BB guns to pointed sticks, it sometimes seems like everything that's fun is also a potential threat to your eyesight. With this in mind, it's hardly surprising that 3-D movies, games and TVs have drawn fire from critics who worry that they could cause long-term eye damage.

According to a recent study commissioned by VSP Vision Care, a not-for-profit vision benefits and services company, 64% of parents worry that 3-D "will negatively impact visual development," and 70% believe that 3-D "will negatively impact short-term or long-term vision." Surprisingly, the medical establishment -- usually the first to warn about the dangers of new technologies -- has ridden to the rescue, suggesting that not only is 3-D safe, but that it may actually prove beneficial for some users.

Manufacturers Cover Their Assets

Oddly, the most damning testimony against 3-D -- or "stereoscopic" -- technologies hasn't come from parents or watchdog groups, but from Sony (SNE) and Nintendo (NTDOY), both of which are poised to realize massive profit from 3-D sales. Late last year, Nintendo issued a warning about the 3DS, a portable game console, telling potential users that the machine's eye-tricking technology "has a potential impact on the growth of children's eyes."

In some ways, this warning was a masterpiece of corporate doublespeak: Dire-sounding yet nonspecific, it suggested that Nintendo doesn't have any idea about the possible permanent effects of stereoscopic viewing, but is laying the groundwork for a future legal defense. Sony offered a similar caveat in the terms of service for its PlayStation network, noting that some 3-D users "may experience discomfort," in which case they should consult doctors. The warning goes on to observe that "The vision of young children (especially those under six years old) is still under development." While the company doesn't indicate any particular problems that 3-D may cause, it suggests that parents should "supervise young children" and "consult your doctor (such as a pediatrician or eye doctor) before allowing young children to watch 3D video images or play stereoscopic 3D games."

Sony's warning isn't just hard to understand -- it's also hard to find. Tucked into the company's online Terms of Service, it is the kind of legal boilerplate that many consumers routinely skip over on their way to clicking the "accept terms" button. Even among parents who actually slog through to the end of Sony's dull, legalistic document, it's hard to imagine that many will follow its advice to consult a doctor before plugging in a 3-D console.

Then again, if Sony's users actually called an optometrist, they would most likely receive a very surprising response.

Support From an Unexpected Corner

While manufacturers are wishy-washy about the potential health effects of 3-D viewing, the eye care industry has been surprisingly supportive. The American Optometric Association has stated that 3-D is "a safe and appropriate technology for all viewing audiences," and is partnering with "a consortium of 45 companies" to promote the technology. Similarly, The American Academy of Ophthalmology has offered a measured endorsement of 3-D, noting that there are no "persuasive, conclusive theories on how 3-D digital products could cause damage in children with healthy eyes." The academy's statement goes on to note that children who exhibit negative reactions to 3-D may suffer from pre-existing eye problems, in which case it recommends that "the child be given a comprehensive exam by an ophthalmologist."

Dr. Martin Banks, a professor of vision science at UC Berkeley, echoes this, noting that the technology "could be helpful in the early detection of some vision problems." Basically, the reasoning is that children who are unable to process a 3-D image may suffer from a variety of eye conditions, including strabismus -- "crossed eyes" -- and amblyopia, which is better known as "lazy eye." While these diseases may go unnoticed for years, 3-D movies and games can bring them to the attention of sufferers -- and their parents.

Dr. Justin Bazan, a New York-based optometrist, notes that early detection of eye problems can increase the effectiveness of treatment. More importantly, he stresses, strabismus, amblyopia, and other eye problems can be devastating for school-age children: "Learning-related visual conditions can affect a child's ability to progress in school," he notes. "You can't recover years that are lost due to eyesight problems."

Moderation Is Key

This isn't to say that eye care professionals aren't cautious about 3-D technology. Bazan, for example, suggests that users follow the "20/20/20 rule": "After 20 minutes of stereoscopic viewing," he advises, "you should take a 20-second break and look at something 20 feet away to give your eyes a rest." Bazan notes, however, that this technique also applies to viewers of traditional 2-D computers and televisions, which can also cause eye strain.

Banks also encourages moderation: "I think it's appropriate to be cautious," he stresses. "When you introduce a new technology, a reasonable person will ask about its long-term effects. We need to do more research into stereoscopic technology."

For that matter, he notes, the technology should cause less eye strain when it is used by a careful director: "Poor quality stereoscopic films, in which images come jumping out of the screen, are more likely to cause discomfort. Better stereo producers are aware of this and try to keep the viewers' eyes focused at the distance of the screen."

Warnings aside, Banks theorizes that 3-D technology may actually be easier on the eyes than traditional TVs and movies: "One could argue that stereo images are closer to visual cues in the real world than traditional 2-D. In that sense, once we get used to it, it would make sense that stereoscopic images would be less jarring to users."

But regardless of whether or not it's good for users, one thing is for certain: With billions of dollars in movie, TV and gaming revenues on the line, stereoscopic viewing is definitely here to stay. And with eye care professionals on board, it isn't hard to see how the technology could be a virtual gold mine for its manufacturers.

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