It's been a landmark week for 3D television in Australia, with Foxtel claiming Australia's first commercial 3D broadcast on Monday and the State Of Origin offering a 3D broadcast this evening. But while it's early days for 3D broadcasting, it's worth pointing out that there's some evidence that prolonged 3D viewing experiences are bad for you.
Picture by James Morgan
3D television is still very much in the experimental phase: only a handful of people have purchased sets, and the number is so low that official ratings weren't even measured for Monday night's experimental Socceroos broadcast on Fox Sports. Nonetheless, 3D television has been heavily promoted as the next major evolution in television, prompted in part by the success of 3D movies such as Avatar and the insatiable desire of consumer electronics manufacturers to convince us to continually replace gear.
Leaving aside the argument of whether we really want to see everything in 3D, and whether large families want to invest in multiple pairs of 3D glasses, there's a simpler reason to be wary of extended 3D TV viewing sessions: it can seriously mess with your head.
The most interesting summary of the problem I've run into is by Mark Pesce, who worked on developing 3D technology in the mid-1990s. It's well worth reading the full article on the ABC's Drum opinion site, but here's the crux of the problem — 3D television only uses one of the cues (parallax) which the brain uses to interpret the real world in 3D, which can cause problems once you stop watching:
When the movie's over, and you take your glasses off, your brain is still ignoring all those depth perception cues. It'll come back to normal, eventually. Some people will snap right back. In others, it might take a few hours. This condition, known as 'binocular dysphoria', is the price you pay for cheating your brain into believing the illusion of 3D. Until someone invents some other form of 3D projection (many have tried, no one has really succeeded), binocular dysphoria will be part of the experience.
This doesn't matter too much if you're going to see a movie in the theatre - though it could lead to a few prangs in the parking lot afterward - but it does matter hugely if it's something you'll be exposed to for hours a day, every day, via your television set. Your brain is likely to become so confused about depth cues that you'll be suffering from a persistent form of binocular dysphoria.
Now, if you're only going to watch the occasional event (such as the State of Origin), that might not matter too much. But if you're consistently watching 3D content, either via a dedicated channel or through a set which does on-the-spot conversion, it could be a major cause of concern. If you're only planning to occasionally watch 3D content, investing several thousand dollars in a new set and associated headgear seems pricey. Those prices will inevitably fall if 3D is successful, but that could be some time off.
It's worth noting that Pesce's argument stirred up a fair degree of debate on the ABC site, and the issue certainly isn't resolved. But 3D can be problematic in other ways: I personally fall into the category of people who have stereo blindness and basically don't enjoy 3D content. If nothing else, that's going to save me some money on TV set upgrades.
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