3D TV could cause road fatalities - AUT University researcher

AUT University's Dr Roy Davies finds minor, major and, yes, potentially lethal problems with 3D television technology. They range from tired eyes to nausea to hay-fever like symptoms to potential inability to properly judge distances. READ ALSO: Berkeley study finds 3D TV causes eye strain; 'doll house' effect It's not news that will be welcomed by the big-three pushing 3D TV here - Panasonic, Samsung and Sony.

AUT University’s Dr Roy Davies finds minor, major and, yes, potentially lethal problems with 3D television technology.

They range from tired eyes to nausea to hay-fever like symptoms to potential inability to properly judge distances.

READ ALSO: Berkeley study finds 3D TV causes eye strain; 'doll house' effect

It's not news that will be welcomed by the big-three pushing 3D TV iin New Zealand - Panasonic, Samsung and Sony.

Nor by TiVo (which recently launched pay-per-view 3D content), or Sky TV, which has recently been experimenting with 3D content - no doubt with an eye on the recent AFL Grand Final, which was broadcast in 3D for some Australian viewers).

Yet the academic is no luddite, or 3D naysayer.

Quite the reverse.

Dr Davies (pictured) is an avid proponent of three-dimensional (3D) graphics and video, both commercially, and academically.

He spends around 40% of his time managing the new Virtual Reality Suite within the university’s Colab, supervising students’ research, and liaising with companies who want to commercialise that research, or tap students to work co-operatively on projects.

The balance of his time is devoted to his consulting business, Flexible Reality Studio, which - in a not dissimilar vein to the AUT Colab - involves harnessing 3D technologies for real-life applications such as industry training (one 3D product in his stable provides a virtual way to learn how to use a heavy-duty lathe, with no risk to fingers or machinery).

Dr Davies’ issues are that, right now, many in the entertainment industry do a second-rate job at implementing 3D technology and, secondly, that it’s (potentially) negative effects are poorly understood.

Could be fatal
When you’re watching a film, or playing a 3D game on your TV (PlayStation and Xbox both support 3D gaming), your brain becomes accustomed to an artificial depiction of stereoscopic images.

“What are the long-term effects of that?,” Dr Davies asked.

“Potentially, it could destroy or impair your sense of distance. So you might play a 3D computer game for 10 hours and then hop on a car and misjudge the distance. And that could be fatal.”

(Samsung, the only company that runs a health warning onscreen with its 3D TVs, would not comment when approached by NBR.)

Dr Davies at AUT University's recently-opened Virtual Reality Suite. The research unit - part of the university's Colab - will see students write white papers that can be tapped by industry, and cooperate with businesses on research into 3D technologies, and how they can be commercialised in areas such as health, training and marketing.

Basically, very little is known for sure about the long term effects of using stereoscopic 3D glasses and screens because this is a new situation, said Dr Davies.

While the technology has been around for about 15 years, this is the first time that large groups of the population are being exposed to it for long periods of time.

Calling a technology potentially fatal is a big call. NBR asked the academic to put his thoughts about the risks of 3D on paper. He came back with:

The risks are:

1) The technology used [with 3D TV] is called 'active stereo', that is the glasses use LCD filters to open and shut each eye in time with a left and right image being shown on the screen. Even though the screens are up around 120Hz, each eye is behind a filter that flickers at 60Hz. If you remember the old CRT monitors that had a 60Hz refresh rate, that made your eyes tired. Now, there are strategies to modify the flicker to being different sequences rather than just LRLRLRLR, it might be LLRLRRLRLLR or something like that. However, I expect this flicker still causes tiredness of the eyes, especially if you also get interference from fluorescent bulbs.

2) Stereoscopic 3D on the screen is a false form of stereoscopic vision. This is because we ask the eyes to focus on the screen (using the lens), but angle themselves to look at objects which are perceived to be in front of or behind the screen. Normally these two physical processes are in synch, but with stereoscopic 3D on a screen or TV, we have to decouple them. Some people cannot do this, and long periods of doing this may have side effects - we just don't know yet.

3) Bad Stereoscopic 3D content creation. It is very easy to make a stereoscopic sequence that is very uncomfortable for the eyes, unfortunately, many producers don't know what is good and what is bad (and many don't care).

This is especially prevalent in 2D to 3D conversions, and situations where the 3D has come as an afterthought.

This is also a complicated area, as it not only affects your perception of stereoscopic 3D, but it is also very easy to break the illusion of stereoscopic 3D when done badly, and cause rather odd psychological effects.

For example, we only see stereoscopically for about 20-30 meters in front of us, otherwise the world is pretty much monoscopic.

But if a stereoscopic effect is forced on very large, familiar objects, our brains tell us 'this can't be stereoscopic 3D and this big, therefore, this must be a model of a large object - a rather weird feeling.' Further, content made for big cinema needs to have different stereoscopic parameters than content made for TVs, though different sized TVs should have different parameters - not possible, though. The side effects of bad stereoscopic 3D are potentially extremely uncomfortable eyes, nausea and extreme tiredness of the eyes.

Preventing problems
To mitigate these negative effects, you shouldn't really watch stereoscopic TV for more than a couple of hours at a stretch, and then rest your eyes, preferably doing things in the 'real world' for about an hour.

Also, be aware if your eyes are starting to feel tired, achy or are running - bit like hay-fever, or if your vision starts to waver of focus starts to go. If any of those symptoms occur, then turn of the TV for a while and rest your eyes.

An extreme example is: If a person watches a lot of stereoscopic 3D TV, their brains will start to accommodate to this new way of seeing 3D, even if they don't suffer any of these other side-effects. However, this may be to the detriment of their stereoscopic 3D perception in the real world.

This could mean that when driving, for example, they may misjudge distances, and cause an accident, especially if they jump in a car and start driving directly after a long stint of stereoscopic 3D TV watching.

Also note, the side effects of stereoscopic 3D film watching are less, due mostly to the shorter, controlled period of time, and the different 'passive stereo' technology used. But the effects of bad stereoscopic 3D can still be very uncomfortable, in fact, I actually have a pair of 'monosopic film glasses' which cut out the stereoscopic effect.

Many TV, movie producers stuck in 2D thinking
Some 3D movies – Dr Davies name-checks Avatar – have been smoothly executed, but others have been inept.

“Have you seen Clash of the Titans in 3D?” he asked NBR. “I wouldn’t advise it.”

But even 3D content that looks great on a big screen – especially a totally immersive IMAX experience – can look phoney on a flatscreen TV.

3D visuals look impressive in a hey-wow kind of a way, but also slightly disconcerting, because in our long field of view we effectively see in 2D.

Want the biggest possible 3D image at home - go for a projector
Incidentally, as TV makers themselves say, bigger is better for 3D. But if you want to replicate an immersive, cinema-like experience in your own home, try leaving LCDs and plasmas behind for an HD projector that supports 3D. In his lab, Dr Davies has one from Mitsubishi.

Non-immersive sports
He’s particularly critical of 3D sports coverage, which has tended to be shot in the same manner as 2D television.

Directors would be better off with more cameras that track along with the players, rather than at-times disorientating sweeps and zooms. Rather, 3D coverage should play to the technology’s strengths. For example, with lots of pitch-level cameras, giving the viewer the feeling they’re literally standing on the sidelines, immersed in the game.

Upscaling – uh-uh
Dr Davies also finds many cheap-and-nasty executions of 3D, from movies and TV programmes produced by those with neither the experience nor the budget to handle the technology to clumsy attempts to “upscale” or convert 2D, regular DVD movies or broadcast TV to 3D (for the record, he says all upscaling is bad. In the 3D TV market, Sony and Panasonic forswear the process, but Samsung offers it).

Tough love
Some in the film or TV industry will bristle at Dr Davies' comments.

But beyond the rah-rah hype, people are experiencing real problems with 3D games, TV and movies. The person I saw Avatar with was unable to watch the second half of the movie due to nausea.

The AUT University academic is investigating why some people find the technology uncomfortable, and trying to identify solutions - and forestall potentially worse problems to come. Call it tough love.

Specifically, he leads a new AUT research centre, dubbed the VR Suite, where businesses interested in virtual reality can collaborate with university researchers on ideas and build the next generation of interactive, multi-sensory computer solutions. For example, using 3D video and graphics as part of a vocational training programme.

Dr Davies, who set up a similar operation at the University of Lund in Sweden, the Virtual Reality Suite is available to students, staff and companies interested in using interactive 3D technology.

An ex-chief executive and chief science officer of the 3D visualisation research firm Nextspace (the technology cluster in orbit around the part-government funded Right Hemisphere) , he’s interested in everything from 3D visual technologies to ultimately using all the human senses to better interact with computers and fully appreciate the complex data they hold.

“We’re interested in how we can improve contact between computers and humans for use in areas such as scientific investigation, art appreciation, planning, design and education. The human is the expert and we want to find how the computer can represent all the data it holds in a way that the human can best appreciate.”

Dr Davies believes in future such computer systems will make their way into peoples’ homes and offices in the same way that stereoscopic TV and gesture-based video games are doing now.

“We’re also interested in research with a commercial focus. We want the knowledge generated at the VRS to be useful. In the short term I see our role as being a place of knowledge. A company says to us ‘We want to grow our business using this technology. Tell us how.’”

The VR Suite is part of AUT’s CoLab (www.colab.org.nz) a multidisciplinary research centre set up to bring together art and design practitioners, media and technology developers.

Real-world projects
Despite only being in operation a few months, the VR Suite already had students and researchers working with projects ranging from visualisation of driving one of the world’s fastest cars (check out JetBlack.co.nz), to creating experiences for people with Down’s Syndrome, to making rehabilitation after stroke more compelling.

The VR Suite has a range of tools including the Deep Server 3D digital asset management system from Right Hemisphere which is used by the aeroplane maker Boeing to store 3D plans and graphics and the virtual reality software Unity 3D by EON Reality.

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