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Plugged In

Nintendo 3DS and young eyes: Should parents really be concerned?

Plugged In

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Nintendo has spent decades honing its reputation as a
company safe for kids of all ages. But concerns about the effects of 3D visuals
on the still-developing eyes of young children have added an air of uncertainty
to the impending release of their new 3DS handheld.

Launching in North America on March 27, the system boasts 3D technology without requiring the use of cumbersome glasses. It's the next iteration of the wildly successful DS line, which trails only the Playstation 2 as the best-selling game system ever. It's already proven to be a big hit in Japan -- and with pre-orders through the roof in both Europe and
the U.S., it seems destined for (at least initial) greatness in other regions, too.

Parents, however, might be a bit surprised when they see the
following warning slapped on the box containing their shiny new hardware:

"3D Mode for ages 7+. Warning: Viewing of 3D images by children 6 and under may cause vision damage. Use the parental control feature to restrict the display of 3D images for children 6 and under."

Yikes. Heavy stuff for a fun-loving machine.

Nintendo acknowledged the issue several months ago, though that sticker shock is bound to raise a flurry of new questions as the device ships to stores. How alarmed should
parents be?

According to Dr. Ahna Girshick, Postdoctoral Research Fellow
at UC Berkeley's EECS Department, the danger boils down to what we know -- and
what we don't know -- about the way kids perceive 3D.

RELATED: Essential launch games for the 3DS

"The Nintendo 3DS and all 3D media rely on the brain's
ability to decouple two visual processes which we use for depth perception:
stereo vision (or "vergence") and focus (or "accommodation")," Girshick told Y! Games. "When viewing the natural world, these two systems are always coupled together."

"In a 3D display," Girshick continues, "we focus our eyes on the display but converge our eyes on the 3D content, which is generally at different distances. This is the trick which allows us to perceive artificial content as 3D. Much is known about these visual mechanisms in adults. However, we do not know what happens to children, whose visual systems are still developing."

Girshick finds that lack of info troubling, and while she
notes that to the best of her knowledge "there is no hard evidence that
anything harmful will happen" to kids who are exposed to this sort of 3D
tech, there's also no data supporting its safety.

"And no parent wants their child to be 'guinea pigs' in
an experiment for the entertainment industry," she contends.

It's a fair point, and one that likely echoes the thinking
of more conservative parents. But it's not the only opinion out there.

The American Optometric Association, in fact, has come out
in support of children using the 3D feature of the 3DS, insisting that it's not
only safe for kids and adults, but
that the technology might help identify eye problems that would have otherwise
gone undetected, such as amblyopia (lazy eye). They've essentially disagreed
with Nintendo, stating that "children younger than 6 can use the 3DS in 3D
mode if their visual system is developing normally."

So with the science up in the air, where does that leave
parents? Playing it safe and following Nintendo's advice -- which is most likely
plastered all over the box more for legal reasons than medical ones -- is actually
quite easy. The 3DS comes equipped with a full suite of parental control
features, including the ability to disable all 3D images, restricting games
based on ESRB game ratings, and limiting the wireless transmission of data.

Currently (and for the foreseeable future), no games for the system are designed only to work in 3D, so younger players will still be able to enjoy all of the system's software
in 'boring' old 2D. And as the AOA points out, moderation is always a good
thing.

"While studies on the effects of prolonged 3D viewing
on young children remain to be done, leaning toward the side of caution is
advisable in guiding children to use these devices in moderation," they
say.

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