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The Truth About 3D TV

Soon, you might be sitting down in front of a 3D movie that flashes a warning about the known risks involved in watching. For now, what we don’t know about watching movies and TV shows in 3D could fill a 2D book!

This week, I spent some fun time with Panasonic’s new line of 3D TVs. Resplendent in its 3D glory was the 50- and 55-inch VIERA VT25 Full HD 3D Plasma. It was a crowd pleaser, but it also made me all too aware about how little we know about optimal 3D viewing. Start asking a few questions about the effect of 3D viewing on our bodies and brains, and you discover how little anyone knows—especially when it concerns the bodies and brains belonging to children.

The www Eye Test

3D TV may turn out to be the de facto screening test for certain vision impairments. It turns out that not everyone can experience 3D. According to research, between 5% and 10% of Americans suffer from stereo blindness. They cannot see the depth dimension of 3D programming. Some can still view the 3D as 2D. Others find that watching can lead to headache, eye fatigue, or motion sickness.

In a recent press release, The College of Optometrists in Vision Development (COVD) suggested that 3D content could be used as a sort of nationwide screening system for visual problems. “Research has shown that up to 56% of those 18 to 38 years-of-age have one or more problems with binocular vision and therefore could have difficulty seeing 3-D,” said COVD President Dr. Carol Scott, optometrist from Springfield, MO, “and about 5 to 7% of children have amblyopia and cannot see 3-D at all.”

A Kid’s Eye View

For the foreseeable future, watching 3D TV or movies will require special glasses, and everyone in the family needs a pair in order to watch. Most TV sets at retail are demonstrated with adult-sized glasses. These fall right off a kid’s head, making movie watching a pain and 3D game playing downright impossible (as kids are constantly pushing their glasses back into place). Plus, kids’ eyes are closer together than adults, so they really need to have kid-sized glasses.

Most of what’s available for 3D-viewing kids are those chintzy blue and red cellophane-like inserts into cardboard frames—the kind that come in cereal boxes or in the 3D of yesteryear. A few vendors like Samsung design kid-sized 3D glasses with active shutter LCDs, just like mom and dad’s. Active shutter glasses—the current state of the art—are battery operated and the lenses are coordinated to lighten and darken in synch with the 3D content. While adults have enough visual experience to understand and compensate for depth of field and spatial representations, who knows what kids are seeing when they look through 3D glasses and what effect it will have when the glasses come off.

Despite the unanswered questions, the majority of 3D content being created is family content.  Movies from Disney, Fox, and Pixar, nature shows from National Geographic, cartoons, and blockbusters like Avatar were made for family viewing, yet, it’s hard for a parent to know whether the glasses are comfortable and the image appears as it should for the child.

Best Practices

Most researchers believe that there will be a set of best practices involved with watching 3D. For one thing, you’ll want to sit a bit closer to the TV than you would in a 2D world. You might also want a slightly brighter TV, since part of what the glasses do to create the image is lighten and darken the glasses’ screen.

Whether 3D turns out to be the norm for viewing or whether it will be the cause of one big worldwide headache remains to be seen. In gauging reactions from 3D viewers who comment on forums, it’s clear that for some 3D is enthralling, for others just nauseating. The more research we do, the more pleasant the experience will be, and for parents that means understanding the effects of watching 3D on kids’ visual development.