3D Video Gaming to Get Big Push in 2011, But Is It Safe?

Experts warn of possible dangers to kids' eyes and mention that many adults can experience "vision sickness."

LAS VEGAS -- It's Round 2 of 3D at CES 2011.

And this year will be different thanks to the one-two punch of strong Hollywood Blu-ray 3D releases like Disney's TRON: Legacy and Tangled and the debut of the autostereo (glasses free) Nintendo 3DS handheld video game device.

Plus, consumer electronics giants like Vizio are making it more affordable to upgrade to 3D TVs by switching to passive 3D technology, which is the less expensive alternative to viewing stereo 3D.

The game industry is just treading into the 3D waters.

But even though parents have had questions about letting their children play 3D video games, Nintendo's device is expected to test the mainstream market quickly, thanks to its lower cost of entry and its dominance in the portable gaming space. 

All the major game publishers are readying Nintendo 3DS titles for this year as well. In fact, half of Ubisoft's games this year, including Tom Clancy's Ghost Recon: Future Soldier, will support 3D gameplay.

It's not just game companies that have a stake in the success of the new technology. The consumer electronics manufacturers, who did not see 3D TVs fly off retail shelves over the holiday, believe 3D games will be a key driver for adoption.

After all, gamers are the same early adopters who made Apple's iPhone and iPad successful.

There will also be big stereo 3D titles like Electronic Arts' Crysis 2 from developer Crytek, and Sony's Killzone 3 from developer Guerilla Games, Uncharted 3 from Naughty Dog and MLB 11: The Show to entice consumers to make the upgrade to the third dimension.

But is 3D viewing -- and 3D gaming, which can captivate consumers for hours in front of a screen -- really safe? 

Nintendo, which has a private suite at the Hilton this week at CES 2011, has made quite a stir recently. Although the company originally warned parents that children seven and younger shouldn't play with its upcoming autostereoscopic device back at E3 2010 in June, they issued a new warning the other week in anticipation of its global launch this quarter. 

The Nintendo 3DS ships Feb. 26 in Japan and is expected to be released in the U.S. around March. Nintendo will officially announce launch details at a New York press event on Jan. 19, but the company will be showing media the 3D portable device and its games at CES 2011 this week.

"For children under the age of 6, looking at 3D images for a long time could possibly have a negative impact on the growth of their eyes," Nintendo posted on its Japanese website.

It also warned gamers to take a break every 30 minutes when playing games in 3D mode. The 3DS has a slider that allows players to switch gameplay from 3D to 2D on-the-fly. 

A spokesperson for VSP Vision Care, the nation's largest vision insurance provider, said that a large percentage of the U.S. population is unable to view 3D due to an array of symptoms, similar to motion sickness, that the experts call "vision sickness." However, generally speaking, 3D is not harmful for your eyes. 

Nintendo president Reggie Fils-Aime said at an E3 press conference last June that: "We will recommend that very young children not look at 3D images. That's because, [in] young children, the muscles for the eyes are not fully formed. ... This is the same messaging that the industry is putting out with 3D movies."

Samsung, Panasonic and Sony all have similar 3D warnings on their websites for their stereoscopic 3D TVs and 3D games.

Despite selling more than 5 million copies of its 3D-ready Gran Turismo 5 this holiday, Sony had no reported complaints from consumers who played the racing game in stereo 3D.

The same holds true with Activision's Call of Duty: Black Ops, the biggest game release of all time. All three versions of the game (PS3, Xbox 360 and PC) are stereo 3D ready and no complaints were reported. 

"The technical process of converting 3D for a game is not too hard, but the challenge is how to make 3D games comfortable for the viewer," said David Coombes, platform research manager, Sony Computer Entertainment America. "You'll find that some 3D movies are more comfortable to watch then others. And that's a growing process that both game companies and Hollywood are going through."

"Unfortunately, widespread extended 3D viewing is so new, that there is very little scientific data to guide us in the difference between stereo and autostereo," said VSP provider Dr. Nathan Bonilla-Warford of Tampa, Florida. "One obvious difference is that with autostereo there is no chance that the glasses themselves will irritate the nose or the ears. However, some autostereoscopic techniques usually require a person to keep their head at a very specific location, which can be fatiguing. We do not know if one method or the other is safer for long-term use." 

With big companies like Sony, NVIDIA, Nintendo, Activision and Ubisoft investing heavily in 3D games, it's not something that's going to go away.
"We've just started to explore the possibilities of 3D gaming," said Adam Rosas, lead cinematics animator on Call of Duty: Black Ops at Treyarch. "Just looking at the 3D possibilities in future games is exciting because it will enhance the experience gamers have with our characters and with our stories." 

But the jury's still out on whether they'll flock to 3D. As for the mainstream audience Nintendo is targeting with Nintendo 3DS, any question mark regarding adverse health effects for kids playing 3D will ultimately have some impact on consumers' minds.