3D TV health risks: are they real?

Tech firms say no - but their warnings say different

A new dimension in illness

Are you thinking of buying a 3D TV? "For God's sake, don't," says virtual reality expert Mark Pesce – and while TV manufacturers don't agree with his comments, they do warn buyers of potential problems.

Samsung's Australian website warns of numerous side effects including disorientation, headaches and motion sickness, and recommends you don't watch 3D TV if "you are in bad physical condition, need sleep or have been drinking alcohol".

In its manual for its Series 7 3D TV it also urges you not to let under-sixes watch any 3D whatsoever. It's not the TVs; it's the 3D.

Screenings of Avatar gave many cinemagoers headaches, with reports saying that up to 15 per cent of 3D moviegoers get sore heads. That's largely because 3D tells your eyes that they can look anywhere, but much of what's on-screen is blurred – so while the characters may be pinsharp, other foreground elements may be out of focus.

So is 3D actually bad for you? Do Samsung's warnings rule out watching 3D World Cup footage down the pub? According to Mark Pesce, the answer is yes.

Pesce helped invent the virtual reality language VRML and worked with Sega to develop a VR headset in the 1980s. The project was canned when it emerged that 3D messed with many people's heads.

With 3D films, he says, "You'll leave the theatre and your perception – your depth perception – will be screwed up. It'll snap back to normal [but] it'll take different times… some people will snap back immediately, some will snap back in an hour and so on."

It's all an illusion

Steven Nusinowitz, Professor of Ophthalmology at the Jules Stein Eye Institute, has echoed Pesce's comments. He explained to CNN: "The movie is telling you 'Hey, I'm moving around in this scene' but your vestibular system is telling you, 'I'm not moving anywhere'. That disconnect will make some people feel sick."

The problem, Pesce says, is that no matter how good a 3D system is, it's still an illusion. Your eyes are fooled into seeing a 3D scene on a 2D screen, and when it's over it takes a while for your eyes and your brain to return to normal.

"None of this has been thought through by any of the consumer electronics companies," he says. "If you're going to be using it night after night in your living room, it's probably quite unhealthy."

Despite its warnings, Samsung says there's nothing to worry about. "Samsung 3D TVs are safe," a spokesman told us flatly. "When used properly and advisories are followed, 3D functions should not pose adverse health or safety risks."

Samsung R&D chief Simon Lee is more forthcoming. "Each person's ability to recognise the 3D effect is slightly different," he says: around two per cent of us can't view 3D correctly, and small children are more likely to be in that group.

3D TV won't be much fun for them; unfortunately, the technology's too new for anyone to know what, if anything, it will do to the rest of us.

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