3D, health issues, missing data, and PR

When I started working with the USC Entertainment Technology Center (ETC) in January of this year, I thought the primary problems that stereoscopic 3D would have to overcome in order to become a mass market product were technical.  There were multiple formats for encoding the signal for distribution from a source to a consumer device.  There were competing display technologies in the marketplace, including active shutterpolarizedhead mounted displays, and autostereoscopic (plus the far inferior but cheap red/green anaglyph).

Nine months into this activity, I think those problems are going to solve themselves through market forces and individual company’s desire to have their products win in the marketplace.

The competing encoding formats will either shake out into one or two that organically come to dominate the market, or software that auto-detects the incoming signal and appropriately processes the image data will take over.  That translation tool will feed a signal that is appropriate to the display device.  Consumers will choose shutter glass versus polarized display based on personal preference, just as they decide between DLP, LCD, and Plasma screens today.  Each will have pluses, and minuses, marketing spin, and personal buzz to help inform the consumer’s decision.  But no matter what display technology the consumer chooses, all content will most likely play on all devices once those translators are deployed.

I now think the greatest possible problem facing stereoscopic 3D as it moves into the mass market is the lack of a rational, data-driven response to grass-roots emotional fears about and possible regulatory action against 3D content.  There is no data on the effect of viewing 3D content on a diverse, mass audience.

Vision scientists and practicing eye specialists have been gathering data from small target populations for decades.  The studies cover the ability or inability to see in stereotechniques and exercises for learning to see in stereo, back-of-the-eye / focal length flexibility, the eye-brain relationship, vertical alignment or misalignment of individuals’ eyes, and other topics.

What is missing are statistically valid studies that are directly applicable to the audience for 3D movies and content.  That audience ranges in age from 6 months to 100 years, and includes men and women, people with 20/20 vision, nearsightedness, and farsightedness, people who are stereo blind, people with excellent eye alignment, and people with vertical and horizontal eye misalignments.

We have plentiful data on the demographics of the movie-going audience.  But we lack data on their visual acuity.

The entire industry is unnecessarily exposed to a battle of opinions that it WILL lose without data.  Bloggers are already questioning whether viewing 3D content could be harmful to children’s development.  Some researchers I have spoken to have said that it could actually be good for the development of vision because it exercises the eyes.

At a recent major European media conference, a technical advisor to the European Broadcasting Union called for warning labels on 3D viewing experiences stating that they could be harmful to the viewer’s health. In a follow-up email exchange with him I pointed out that reading while sitting next to a window in a moving car can also be harmful to your health, but no one is calling for warning labels on car windows.  From a policy-making standpoint, the questions he should ask before making policy recommendations should include the severity of the risk and the size and scope of the risk among the general population.

But today there is no general population data.  Any policy discussion would be based on individual case studies, small non-representative studies, and anecdotes.

At the ETC I have proposed developing studies with defensible methodologies on the health impact of both short term (2-4 hours) and long term (weeks and months) 3D content viewing.  We have also proposed population studies on the distribution of people who experience eye strain while viewing 3D content.  These studies would be done on the wide range of people who would typically attend movies; both 2D and 3D.

As with everything the ETC does, the data would be gathered in a defensible, neutral manner, and presenting in its raw form as well as with some statistical analysis done to it.  But without judgment or marketing spin.  The ETC strenuously holds to its charter as a neutral facility, and not an advocacy body for any industry or group.

The  objective would be to be prepared with data when point/counterpoint opinion pieces and debates erupt related to the impact of viewing 3D content on the health of the audience.

I look forward to working with the members of the ETC and other interested parties to develop these plans and fund the studies.  It will be good to advance the consumer 3D experience and enter into debates with a foundation of data.


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