A couple of days before the Nintendo 3DS officially went on sale in the United States, I brought the machine to a pair of eye experts, so they could look at the thing and I could look at them.
I've never taken a video game machine to the doctor before. It's not been part of my routine.
In the old days my new video game consoles appeared under the Christmas tree; for a time after that, I bought them, then played them. Most recently, as was the case with the 3DS, they have arrived through the mail, sent by their manufacturer to me as a reporter, so I can start playing them and writing about them, prior to the machines' official launch. Doctors were never involved in this process.
The 3DS, the first portable game system to show its game graphics in glasses-free 3D, however, nearly demanded a medical check-up.
The box Nintendo's machine is sold in is marked with more safety warnings than usual, including a health advisory that states that the "viewing of 3D images by children six and under may cause vision damage."
Warning people about 3D on a 3DS is like warning people about colour on a colour TV. It makes the very selling point of the device seem somewhat dangerous, or if we want to be less severe, since I've been using the machine for a few weeks now with no health problems, we could call it experimental.
With its optional 3D graphics activated, the 3DS does seem to summoning an untapped super-power from its users: the ability to see moving images in 3D, most of the depth receding beyond the screen rather than popping from it, without wearing 3D glasses.
Though I passed my seventh birthday a long time ago, I had felt my own eyes doing enough labour to focus on the 3DS' 3D images that I was curious what deleterious effects this machine might be capable of. I also hoped any doctors I showed the 3DS to could solve the unsolved mystery as to why Nintendo was issuing health warnings at all. Top company officials had been saying since June of last year that they would warn kids off of the 3DS' 3D but have yet to explain their reasons for doing so. Meanwhile, medical experts have shrugged their shoulders about Nintendo's caution.
As far as I could tell, though, none of the eye experts who doubted Nintendo about the 3DS had used a 3DS, which is what led me to bringing my system in for an optometrist ogling. Maybe the people I showed it to would spot the need for Nintendo's warnings.
And so, a couple of Fridays ago, I packed my 3DS in my bag and travelled to midtown Manhattan to visit doctors David Soden and Neera Kapoor, two doctors recommended to me by the American Optometric Association. They work several flights up at the State University of New York's College of Optometry, down the block from the New York Public Library and around the corner from the headquarters of HBO. Soden, the school's vice president of clinical affairs, was more of a host for me during my visit. Kapoor is the school's chief of vision therapy and an expert in helping those who experience difficulty viewing 3D movies, TV and, presumably, video games, deal with the underlying medical issues that cause such problems.
We met in Dr Kapoor's office, sitting around her desk to look at this 3DS. Behind my chair I noticed a box for a Wii Balance Board, but neither of the doctors were expert enough in video games that I didn't have to tell them, when I passed them the 3DS, where to put their thumbs.
I set Dr Kappor up with Ridge Racer 3D, a simple racing game, to get her used to the system. I encouraged her to adjust the slider on the right of the 3DS' upper screen to modulate the depth of the 3D graphics. As she played and her eyes didn't immediately go berserk, I realised that it was unlikely my doctors would be able to make any snap judgments from their few minutes with the 3DS. Dr Kapoor interrupted my train of thought by asking me why she kept crashing. A vision problem, I wondered? No, she just hadn't figured out yet how to steer. Move that left thumb, I suggested.
When Dr Kapoor wasn't playing, she helped explain the real troubles someone might have with seeing 3D. She described vision impairments that are muscular in nature, the simplest cases involving a person whose eyes don't line up quite right and therefore who has to do extra work to get their eyes to hold the focus needed to see 3D images. Those people might be able to see 3D for a time but would tire relatively quickly, she said, finding the experience of watching a feature film in 3D too straining to be comfortable. Up to 20 million Americans might have such problems as the result of either "binocular vision disorders" or "uncorrected refractive errors," according to American Optometric Association figures cited by the doctors. "Such conditions may make 3D-viewing difficult," the said in an email after our meeting. They indicated that as many as five million children have "have amblyopia or ‘lazy eye' that would make viewing 3D impossible."
A person with a "neurological deficit," an ailment of the mind rather than of the eyes, would have a different sort of problem, becoming dizzy after looking at 3D and, in serious cases, still feeling a sense of vertigo for hours, days or weeks after viewing a 3D video game or movie. Those brain issues could arise from glaucoma, which the doctors said is suffered by an estimated two million Americans. It could also result from a stroke or traumatic brain injury.
"Most of these vision conditions can be managed" the doctors tole me, "with the intervention being more successful if diagnosed early."
These are the problems that Dr. Kapoor's patients suffer and for which she treats them, helping those who can to re-train their eyes.
No one, not Nintendo nor any medical expert, has said that the 3DS can cause such problems. In fact, in an e-mail exchange following our visit, Drs. Soden and Kapoor said "currently, there is no evidence of any danger in viewing these 3DS images at any age." They concede that it is "difficult to determine" the affects of 3D viewing on kids under that Nintendo warning age, but they make no special warning for children.
In Dr Kapoor's office, I saw no signs of immediate eye suffering from the two doctors as they traded playing the 3DS, though I do believe Pilotwings Resort induced some grins. It's not every day that eye doctors get to see a new video game system in their office and there was, of course, some enthusiasm there. The doctors pondered aloud about what techniques Nintendo was using to create the 3D effect and started zeroing in on an idea about parallax before I mentioned the system's use of a parallax barrier in its screen.
They couldn't conclude much on the fly and were conservative in their assessment to the point, even a week later during a follow-up email exchange, of neither condemning nor condoning 3DS play. The state of New York, and certainly not doctors working for it, isn't in the habit of endorsing or slamming video game systems, not even after a Kotaku reporter provides a demonstration of how to operate a 3DS.
I did get some good eye strain out of the visit, at least. Dr Kapoor briefly ushered me into an adjacent room to show me some of the techniques used in 3D, sitting me in front of a disparity-based display which uses two different images, one for each eye, one for each eye, to trick the brain into perceiving 3D depth. I struggled to see what crystallised as some sort of floating maze of squiggles. With either eye shut, I saw a single image, each different than the other. She sat me at another less eye-taxing station that showed me 3D created with a parallax effect using identical images. For this test, run by a computer, I could press buttons on a game controller to show where I saw floating 3D images emerge from the corners of a floating, coloured field.
The second of Dr Kapoor's 3D demonstrations was more comfortable, but the first, before the images were perfectly aligned, was more uncomfortable than anything I've experienced with the 3DS. They were just a hint of the discomfort those who struggle to see 3D feel, Dr Kapoor told me. Lucky for me, I wasn't one of those several million who would feel tired quickly as a result, or worse, be plagued with a lingering sense of vertigo.
Despite Nintendo's warning of children against its own new 3D tech, the American Optometric Association and members of the consumer electronics industry (a 3D-selling who's who that does not Nintendo), have begun collaboratively promoting the idea that 3D is not only harmless but a potential indicator of vision or neurological impairments. I did not leave my visit to the doctors with any recommendation that kids avoid 3D on the 3DS. Instead, in my inbox from the doctors about a week later was pretty much the opposite. They wrote:
"Implications of viewing games in 3D for children under the age of seven are difficult to determine. However, the new 3DS hand held game might help in identifying children requiring vision care, including those under the age of seven, by isolating binocular vision problems which are not identified easily with standard eye charts."
The American Optometric Association, which advised the doctors on their answers to my questions about the 3DS, had indicated the same thing in January, suggesting that the 3DS could help kids.
My 3DS, it seems, had tired no eyes and changed no minds. Its doctors' visit had introduced no clarity, just more confusion about why Nintendo's making a fuss and a little amazement that whatever cross-eyed thing we all have to do to view 3D game graphics without wearing 3D glasses doesn't appear to freak top eye doctors out. I'll keep my 3DS slider at mid-range and play in moderation, like the doctors recommend for any video game system.