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3D TV Is Here, But Is It Harmful To Young Eyes?


Over the past few weeks the newest bigger and better device has invaded electronic store shelves: 3D TV. Up to this point 3D entertainment has been mostly confined to theaters, with the exception of occasional 3D DVD releases and TV specials where you have had to suffer through wearing a pair of cardboard glasses with red and blue plastic lenses.


Now television screens are offering the same (and many believe, even better) 3D viewing experience you have been enjoying in theaters. Unlike theatrical glasses, which are similar to polarized sunglasses, the special glasses used for television displays are "active," meaning each lens alternatively changes from opaque to transparent in sync with the TV screen. The cost for admission into this depth defying realm isn't cheap -- but you can bet once the early adopters are satisfied, both the flat panel displays and glasses will decrease in price considerably... and the quality will likely continue to rise.


Even at this early stage, many program producers want to be the first to offer images that appear to protrude from the screen. For the select few with the right stuff, the Master Golf Tournament was available in 3D. Also in March, an NHL game between the two New York rival teams was made available in 3D.


That's just the beginning. ESPN is looking to start the industry's first 3D network. The sports channel is looking to show at least 85 live sports events during the first year, beginning with the first 2010 FIFA World Cup match on June 11. Also looking for a June debut, DirecTV is unveiling three dedicated channels that will be "presented by Panasonic" for the first year they are on the air. The trio of channels will be made available to all DirecTV HD subscribers.


What once appeared to be a nascent technology that has come and gone over the past fifty years, truly seems poised to explode. But is it all good news?


I must admit my bias. As a wearer of glasses I find occasionally viewing a single 3D movie to be a cool experience, but even Avatar's over two-hour running time tested my patience and left my eyes tired and my head feeling a little worse than a bad day at the office. Certainly the experience has improved over the past few years, but I have discovered I'm not the only one who leaves the theater feeling a little motion sick and stressed.


But another more pressing question, in my mind, is what are the effects of prolonged 3D viewing on young viewers whose eyes are still developing? An occasional 3D movie may not be damaging, but what about four hours or more of 3D TV? And you can be certain 3D video games are the next genre to take advantage of this new technology. That could mean literally hundreds of hours of time spent in front of a 3D display in the period of a month or two.


In the February 8, 2010 New York Times, science and health journalist Anahad O'Conner explained why we often leave 3D movies with tired eyes. Summarizing a couple of studies, O'Connor explains that viewing 3D media forces our eyes to perform an "uncoupling of two natural processes that -- over the course of a long movie -- can be stressful."


The problem lies in the difference between reality and virtual worlds. In reality when an object approaches our eyes, two things happen. The eyes converge as the object comes closer, and the lenses in each eye adjust to keep the object in focus. But when we are sitting in a movie theater (or in your family room) 3D movies fool our eyes into thinking the object is approaching our face. This causes (quoting O'Connor) "sensory conflict" because our eyes will converge to follow the object, but our lenses are still focused on the screen -- which (in a movie theater) may be 100 feet or more away.


Even with this artificial uncoupling, according to Dr. Dominick Maino, a Professor of Pediatrics specializing in Binocular Vision, and speaking on behalf of The American Optometric Association, there is "currently no evidence to support the belief that 3D movies harm the eyes."


Asking my questions to Dr. Maino in an interview, he does confirm that this new technology, "can and does ... cause eye strain, double vision, headaches and even nausea" adding "it literally hurts to see." However, Dr. Maino reminds us, "There are very few studies looking at the effect of 3D movies and television on the eyes and adverse affects."


Like any other vision concern, Dr. Maino reminds parents who may be concerned about the effects of 3D viewing to ensure their children receive regular comprehensive eye examinations that include an assessment of the binocular vision system.


"[Eye exams] should be done at least once a year while a child is in school," advises Dr. Maino. "Parents may also want to limit 3D television/video game viewing time as well," he suggests, advising that "by doing both of these activities (comprehensive eye examinations and limited viewing) parents will ensure that their children will have ... healthy and comfortable two-eyed vision that will make all their activities much more enjoyable."


Finally, Dr. Maino says, "If family members do begin suffering from eye strain, double vision or any other symptoms associated with 3D movie viewing, they should know that optometric vision therapy can help correct the problems causing the pain."


Obviously, as is often the case, common sense prevails. If a 3D TV is on its way into your home over the next year, you would be wise to limit 3D viewing time perhaps even more aggressively than what you may already allow for standard "2D" television. And keep tabs on who is suffering from eyestrain. A visit to your family optometrist may help.


Now if we can find some scripts that reflect the same depth we will be seeing on these new flat screened wonders, television will truly be moved into a new dimension.


Rod Gustafson


Besides writing this column for the Parents Television Council, Rod Gustafson authors Parent Previews - a newspaper and Internet column (published in association with movies.com) that reviews movies from a parent's perspective. He's also the film critic for a major Canadian TV station, various radio stations and serves on the executive of the Alberta Association for Media Awareness. Finally, his most important role is being the father to four wonderful children and husband to his beautiful wife (and co-worker) Donna.

Parenting and the Media by Rod Gustafson

The Parents Television Council - www.parentstv.org

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