The True Health Risks of 3D TV

the true health risks of 3d tv television glasses

3D is finally reaching a large audience, but there’s a burning question: What are the long-term effects of watching 3D content for months or even years?

According to a recent NPD report, US customers have spent a whopping $55M on 3D televisions and related technology. That’s surprising, since the first models to offer convincing 3D (from Samsung, Sony, and Panasonic) and the first broadcast 3D content (from DirecTV and ESPN) just became available this summer.

Those who watched the recent World Cup matches, MLB All-Star game, or repeated viewings of Avatar can tell you: the experience is amazing and enjoyable, but there’s some concern about how much 3D we can stand over a long period.

Short-Term Exposure

To find out the short-term effects of 3D, we tested a Sony KDL-46H800 over a week, watching every imaginable show: World Cup matches, the MLB All-Star game, the Blu-Ray 3D version of Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, and several Major League Baseball games. The good news: we had no headaches or nausea, partly due to the crisp resolution of the 3D TV and highly accurate 3D goggles.

the true health risks of 3d tv lgWe did discover that, when watching 3D content, it’s important to take a break between shows. Mild fatigue can result because your eyes do have to work harder. And, it is even more important to sit within a 30- or 40-degree radius of the 3D TV. Sit too far to the side, or too far away, and a headache is more likely.

Long-Term exposure

Of course, watching for a week is one thing. The effects of watching for months, every day, and viewing many different kinds of 3D content are still unknown. Will everyone with a 3D set have bug-eyes and blurred vision in two or three years?

Fortunately, most experts agree that there are no known adverse effects. Dr. Roger Phelps, a 3D vision expert and a VSP Vision Care Optometrist, says there are some people who may have problems with binocular vision and focal abilities temporarily, and can find out how to treat the issue by meeting with a doctor.

“Watching 3D content on a regular basis has not been shown to pose any long-term risks to the viewer,” says Phelps. “However, whether you’re viewing 3D content for a few minutes or a few hours and you’re experiencing headaches, dizziness, nausea or other symptoms, it would be best to see your eye doctor to rule out problems.”

Phelps says one of the key improvements has to do with the goggles used for 3D. For example, Marchon3D goggles use circular polarization so the viewer can tilt his head or move side to side without spoiling the experience.

Creating 3D Properly

Not all 3D experiences are created equally. According to Chris Cookson, chief officer at the Sony 3D Technology Center, both filmmakers and hardware companies have a responsibility for creating 3D experiences that excite – not nauseate.

“I think 3D is what most of us normally experience from the moment we wake up until we go to sleep,” says Cookson. “The question for us is how we can make 3D technology something that does not tax your eyes and your brain.”

the true health risks of 3d tv crowd at avatarImagine, Cookson explains, sitting in a room and seeing someone seated near you and away from you. Your eyes narrow to focus on the foreground object, they rotate outward to see the person from a farther distance away. We do this all day. For 3D in a television or theater, the experience is simulated. The only difference is that, we might perceive a ball coming out of the screen and focus on it, but our brain knows that the entire field of view is actually on one plane.

“That experience of where your eyes are converging is something that needs to be carefully considered,” says Cookson. “You can occasionally have the object come forward in your face, but you have a budget of how much your brain can stand.”

Shawn Veltman, a product developer at iSee3D, says 3D content in the past was not calibrated well. Often, filmmakers would not precisely measure the difference between the left and right cameras, and there was no software for fixing the slight differences, so our eyes would have to work harder to compensate for the difference. It did not help, he says, that for the past two decades many 3D movies used the medium for shooting objects at the viewers.

That’s one of the big differences between a movie like Avatar and previous films. Avatar uses 3D in more of a spatial “bring me inside the movie” way. One example is an early scene when the main character crawls out of a stasis chamber. In 2D, the scene is flat and dull, but in 3D, it pulls you into the scene. (There is one later scene when the spray of a fire hose shoots out at the viewer, however.)

The Theater Dilemma

One issue with 3D technology in theaters is that many digital cinemas use 2K (roughly 2000 x 1000 pixels) projectors, although some use 4K (about 4000 x 2000 pixels). With a 2K picture meant for 2D films, the resolution is just not high enough, because the 3D film actually uses half of the pixels for one eye and half for the other. (If you are a 3D purist you can always ask if the projector is a 4K version before buying a ticket.)

the true health risks of 3d tv avatarThis is also what makes some 3D films look a bit dark. Your eyes have to work harder to see the illuminated content, which can also make some people feel a bit sick. 3D films, according to Cookson, reduce projector brightness by about one-third.

There’s also a small segment of the population – likely the same people who get sick on long car rides – who get sick right away when watching a 3D film. Cookson says there is work being done to make goggles that actually cancel out the 3D effect for those people, so they can still join other moviegoers at a major 3D release.

Moving 3D Forward

Sony has big plans for 3D movies. Resident Evil Afterlife 3D, Priest, and The Green Hornet will showcase the latest 3D technology in the same way that Avatar did last spring. These are not just 2D movies re-purposed into 3D for marketing reasons.

Companies who make 3D movies and hardware will have to deal with these hurdles if the genre is going to last this time. Judging from the bevy of movies that will be shown in 3D, some using more realistic methods and some just adding 3D as an afterthought, the industry is intent on making this work – for everyone.

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