3D warning turns heads

Samsung Australia website lists long list of don'ts

If warnings on Samsung’s Aussie website are to be believed, you might have to watch its 3D TV wearing a crash helmet and seatbelt.

But the electronics company’s somewhat surreal missive has left showbiz tech experts rubbing their eyes in disbelief.

Aside from warning that strobe lights can trigger epileptic seizures — a known risk for pretty much everything from TV screens to traffic lights — it urges viewers to stop watching and consult a doctor if they experience any of a slew of possible symptoms, including dizziness, cramps or “loss of awareness,” and warns against 3D viewing “if you are in bad physical condition, need sleep or have been drinking alcohol.”

That’s bad news for couch potatoes who hoped to crack open a cold one and tune in at odd hours for 3D coverage of this summer’s soccer World Cup.

The warnings seem clearly over the top, even for litigation-sensitive Australia. “DO NOT place your television near open stairwells, cables, balconies or other objects that may cause you to injure yourself.”

Not near cables? That could be a challenge for hardware that needs, well, cables.

Mark Leathan, marketing topper of consumer electronics for Samsung Electronics Australia said: “The warnings on the Samsung Australia website are based on the warnings in the manuals of Samsung 3D TVs in other markets.

“The decision to post the safety warnings on the Australian website was one made by Samsung Australia as a responsible vendor and was not a requirement by the Australian government or any other authority.”

Even Samsung USA seemed to back away from the Aussie warning, without exactly disavowing it.

“Samsung 3D TVs are safe,” said the company in a statement. “Like many other consumer electronic products, Samsung 3D TVs — and all Samsung TVs — carry a consumer advisory to equip our customers with information necessary to enjoy our products responsibly. When used properly and instructions and advisories are followed, 3D functions should not pose adverse health or safety risks.”

It’s remarkable enough fact that one Samsung branch left another hustling to issue assurances that its intensely hyped new product line is safe. But the Oz warning also left 3D experts nonplussed.

Lenny Lipton, whose company StereoGraphics invented much of today’s 3D technology, including active shutter glasses, said: “We sold maybe 150,000 pairs of (active shutter glasses) to people who often used the product for an entire workday for molecular modeling, aerial mapping and such. … We never had a single complaint of the kind noted in the Samsung warning.”

Dr. Martin Banks of U. of California at Berkeley concurred, “There’s essentially no evidence to back up some of these concerns.”

Banks, a professor of optometry and depth-perception expert who worked on the first study to formally document how 3D can induce eyestrain, questioned specific Samsung warnings about dangers to children, teenagers and pregnant women, though he said the idea that 3D can contribute to motion sickness is “not ridiculous.”

“It’s a way of covering their behinds, I think, to try to foresee the full range of possible things whether there’s evidence or not.”

There is precedent for 3D health concerns, however.

In a notorious incident in Japan, the slow strobing of an early version of active shutter glasses induced seizures in some children.

Graphics chip and 3D hardware maker nVidia has a built-in vision test with its gaming gear; users who don’t pass are warned to see an eye doctor and the 3D is disabled on their system.

NVidia’s Bryan del Rizzo said: “I don’t see (the Samsung warning) as being fundamentally different than the epilepsy warnings that pop up whenever I start my Wii. And, given the litigious nature of society in general, warnings like this are probably necessary.”

No other TV maker, however, has posted as dire a warning as Samsung — not even Samsung’s sites in other countries.

Banks’ own studies show that eyestrain can result from the way 3D forces viewers to focus their eyes on the screen while converging their eyes on a point at a different distance.

“As the viewing distance gets shorter, the likelihood that this conflict is going to cause problems increases,” Banks said. That means watching 3D in a theater is less likely to induce the problem, watching 3D TV more so, and watching 3D on a desktop computer monitor or laptop — as gamers do — even more so.

His original report, published in 2008, studied people who use 3D monitors close-up. He said a more recent study, yet to be published, suggests the same issues apply at TV viewing distances.

Banks, who frequently speaks at showbiz tech confabs, said people he talks to in 3D production have been working to minimize those issues. “I’ve been pleased to see how responsive they are.”

He also called some media coverage of potential 3D issues, notably an Australian blog that suggested 3D would permanently ruin children’s depth perception, “irresponsible.”

(Liz Stinson contributed to this report.)

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