Norman Saffra, MD, FACS, FAAO, director of ophthalmology, Maimonides Medical Center, Brooklyn, New York, clinical professor of ophthalmology, Mount Sinai School of Medicine, New York City.
How badly do you and other members of your household want one of those cool new 3D televisions? Do you want to experience 3D shows at home enough to accept the possibility that they may harm your vision and hurt your health?
Don’t get me wrong — I’m a believer in new technology that helps us or even just entertains us… as long as it doesn’t hurt us. There is no question that watching 3D TV is entertaining: Just as with the newest 3D technology used today at movie theaters, two superimposed images that are slightly off register appear on screen and the viewer wears special glasses that allow each eye to see just one of the images — the brain then combines the two images, which we “see” in three dimensions. So that galactic cruiser or baseball or galloping horse really does seem to extend out of the TV and head right for you. While you won’t really be hit by the baseball or run over by the horse, the televisions themselves come labeled with scary warnings, including epileptic seizure (and also seizures in people who are photosensitive but not epileptic), stroke, disorientation, eyestrain, problems with balance and more.
Those are some pretty frightening risks, so I set out to learn whether 3D TV dangers really exist — and if so, to what extent.
I contacted Norman Saffra, MD, director of ophthalmology at Maimonides Medical Center in Brooklyn, New York, and clinical professor of ophthalmology at Mount Sinai School of Medicine, New York City, to find out. His answer to my question was — yes and no. He told me that (as I had suspected) the manufacturers’ warnings come from overzealous legal departments… but he also said people should realize that this technology isn’t for everyone, and that it definitely can harm some people.
Dr. Saffra and I reviewed the warnings one by one:
Epileptic seizure. Some people are predisposed to having seizures when they see rapidly flashing bright lights or are in a room with strobe lights, Dr. Saffra said — especially people with photosensitive epilepsy. The 3D TVs can present a heightened risk for seizures in people with this sensitivity, Dr. Saffra added — saying that for the same reason, this warning is also posted on many video games and other products that involve flashing lights. These effects are bad enough in 2D, but 3D makes them worse. His advice: If you or a family member is photosensitive, especially if you have photosensitive epilepsy, proceed with caution.
Stroke. “To my knowledge of the medical literature, there’s never been a case of stroke that was associated with 3D TV,” Dr. Saffra told me, “but there is a theoretical risk. Stroke is a side effect of some seizures.”
Vision problems, including seeing double, eyestrain and perceptual after-effects, such as seeing objects as closer to you or farther from you (for instance, a flight of stairs or the edge of a porch or balcony) than they actually are. These visual problems stem from the extra work the brain must do as a result of watching 3D TV. First is the necessary adjustment to “seeing” depth while watching 3D effects on what’s actually a flat surface, and then comes the need to readjust to normal vision afterward. People with certain eye conditions — including amblyopia (lazy eye), strabismus (crossed eyes) or eye muscle imbalances — will be almost certain to have these problems, which also may arise among people with other types of vision impairments or even normal vision, though with less frequency. Young people have greater neuroplasticity — they can compensate for changes more quickly. But it is not known how long-term use of 3D might affect them. Older people have a greater likelihood for coexisting diseases — diabetic neuropathy where they might not feel their feet on the floor… Parkinson’s, which would affect gait and balance… cataracts… glaucoma… macular degeneration. In fact, he noted, these vision issues may make it impossible for affected viewers to even see the 3D effect at all.
Nausea, disorientation and increased problems with balance. Some people may experience these reactions while watching. Others have the problem after they’ve removed the 3D glasses. Some people may have trouble with re-fusing images into a single image — which could affect the ability to walk around safely or to drive.
I asked Dr. Saffra what his advice would be to someone considering a 3D TV — and his advice is prudent. “First, for people with underlying eye conditions, or with epilepsy, this isn’t a great choice,” he says. “Beyond that, it would be best to moderate your use — don’t watch every program in 3D, and if you start to experience symptoms, reconsider the amount of time you’re using the TV.” And if you still aren’t sure? “Like most technology, it will get better and safer over time,” Dr. Saffra says. “So if you’re not sure, wait it out.”