Batman “Arkham” games could make you seize

Batman logoHoly flashes, Batman! The Caped Crusader apparently doesn’t look out for people vulnerable to photosensitive seizures. The next game in the hugely popular Batman game franchise fails to meet photosensitive epilepsy image safety guidelines.

Batman: Arkham Origins will be released October 25 containing image sequences that could give you a seizure. If you are concerned about the risk of seizures, steer clear–or make sure to wear your blue Bat-lenses to block out seizure-provoking scenes. I tested official release trailers for the game and for Arkham Origins: Blackgate, a version just for handhelds, and found episodes of excessive flash in both violations. Of course, your results may vary, because with games it’s impossible to anticipate all potential screen sequences.

The previously released Batman: Arkham video games can trigger flash-induced seizures, too. With the same image sequence analysis tool I tested earlier Batman: Arkham games, Arkham Origins and Arkham Asylum, to see whether they fail as well. Indeed, they do. All three are portrayed not in old-fashioned comic book style, but in the style of today’s typical online adventure games.

Shown below are screen captures from the analysis tool as it assesses each of these titles. For those unfamiliar with the format of these test results, click on the screen to see it full-size. The upper left corner shows the specific video frame being analyzed. Underneath is a table showing the safety violations involving flash rate, red flash, and patterns. The bulk of the screen is a graph reflecting how video sequences from the game trailers measure up against international guidelines for preventing photosensitive seizures. Each second of video is composed of a sequence of 29 individual frames, and across the bottom of the screen the frames are shown in  sequence in the video.

Batman Arkham Origins

Batman: Arkham Origins (2013)

Batman: Arkham Origins Blackgate for DS3 and PS Vita (2013)

Batman Arkham City

Batman Arkham City (2011)

Batman: Arkham Asylum

Batman: Arkham Asylum (2009)


Today the sound, tomorrow the picture?

too loud2Have you noticed that watching TV is less annoying lately? Commercials are now required to be no louder than the programming surrounding them. On December 13 an FCC regulation went into effect that was designed for just that. The CALM Act, approved by Congress in 2010, directed the Federal Communications Commission to make it possible to watch TV without constantly turning down the volume of advertisements.

Since the introduction of television in the 1950s, many consumers have complained to the FCC  about the loudness of commercials. What prevented the FCC from doing anything in response was that the issue was technically complicated. Multiple factors can contribute to the perceived loudness of a broadcast, including the strength of the electrical signal, the degree to which the sound signal is compressed. In addition, there was no standard method for content creators and broadcasters to measure broadcast volume.  

In 2006, the International Telecommunication Union–the same UN-affiliated standards body that has published specifications for protecting TV viewers from photosensitive seizures–proposed a new technique for measuring broadcast volume that allows uniform evaluation across national boundaries. In addition, the ITU proposed a numerical “target loudness” using the new loudness gauge. Thanks to the ITU, it became possible to define, comply with, and enforce limits on loudness.

Four years later the United States Congress passed the CALM Act with little debate, by unanimous vote in the Senate and by a voice vote in the House. California Congresswoman Anna Eshoo, who introduced the bill, said it was by far the most popular bill she’d ever sponsored. She said the bill “gives consumers peace of mind, because it puts them in control of the sound in their homes.” She was quoted saying, “If I’d saved 50 million children from some malady, people would not have the interest that they have in this.” By that time the UK, France, Norway, Italy, Japan, Brazil, Israel, Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Poland, and the Netherlands were already limiting the loudness of commercials or had begun action on the issue. 

These days even the video game industry is paying attention to some kind of audio standards, if only for consistency across products. According to an July 2012 interview in Designing Sound, Sony Computer Entertainment Europe is looking at smoothing out the volume among their own game titles.

Unfortunately, in this country making TV safer to watch for the visually sensitive–or making video games safer to play–isn’t on the legislative agenda. Consumers and policy makers aren’t aware of the need. The technical groundwork is already in place for regulations to prevent screen-induced photosensitive seizures, thanks to ITU specifications (and similar versions developed by the UK and Japan), and to similar guidelines adopted by the World Wide Web Consortium for web-based content.

Here’s where things stand at the moment in making US electronic screens safe for those with photosensitive epilepsy: Photosensitive epilepsy protection standards now apply to all federal agency websites. The Photosensitive Epilepsy Analysis Tool (PEAT) downloadable from the PACE Center at the University of Wisconsin at Madison makes available to website designers and software developers a free tool that tests screen content for compliance with seizure safety guidelines. The tool is not intended for entertainment industry developers, however; these companies need to buy commercially available assessment tools.

I’ve written previously about some of the complexities of bringing new screen safety standards to the American telecommunications industry. I”m going to learn more about the legislative process in coming months. My State Representative filed a bill last week to create a commission to study the issue of video game safety for minors at home and in school here in Massachusetts. It will take considerable time to even bring the bill to a public hearing, but as I’ve recently learned, all bills filed in the Massachusetts legislature receive a public hearing at some point in the two-year session. The two years just began this month. Stay tuned.


7 seizure triggers per hour from Spanish TV

Jaime Parra, MD, PhD, with poster describing the Spanish television study

Spanish TV viewers are exposed to potentially seizure-inducing visual sequences about seven times per hour, according to a study released this month at the 10th European Congress on Epileptology in London. The study was led by Jaime Parra, MD, PhD, an epilepsy specialist at Madrid’s Hospital La Zarzuela and Sanatorio Nuestra Señora del Rosario.

Dr. Parra and his team recorded 105 hours of broadcasts across seven channels, capturing four consecutive hours of morning programs on five consecutive days in January. A total of 738 instances were identified where viewers were exposed to visuals that did not meet the safety guidelines for visually induced seizures. The Harding Flash and Pattern Analyzer assessed flash rate, luminance (brightness), intensity of red images, and spatial patterns.

Of the 738 safety violations, 714 incidents involved bright flash. The study’s authors concluded that “Spanish broadcasters seem to be unaware of the risk of photosensitive epilepsy. National guidelines should be adopted to lower the risk of Spanish TV content triggering epileptic seizures in susceptible individuals.” The safest channel was dedicated to children’s programming. The investigators plan to bring their results to the attention of Spanish media and government officials as well as the Spanish public.

Results from the next stage of this project, which will involve analyzing the intensity of the visual stimuli that were recorded, will be presented at an upcoming meeting of the Spanish Neurological Society. The team also plans to assess television broadcasts in other European countries.

To read the poster summarizing the initial findings, click here.


Canaries, autism, and sensory overload

Like canaries testing air safety in a coal mine, people with autism are the first to be affected by hazards in our everyday environment.

“I believe that when the science is in, we will see that people with autism are ‘canaries in the coal mine,’ the most susceptible, who are affected first by problems that may eventually reach us all.”

–from The Autism Revolution by Martha Herbert, MD, PhD, with Karen Weintraub (Ballantine Books, 2012)

Martha Herbert reasons in her remarkable book that the rapidly increasing prevalence of autism indicates the disorder can’t possibly be due to genetics alone. She makes the case, based on findings in diverse fields of medical research and on her own clinical experience, that autism is not a genetic trait destined to be lifelong. Instead, she’s suggesting that the rise in autism is a consequence of the environment we live in, and that many autism symptoms can be reduced by making environmental changes. It’s compelling reading whether or not someone you love has autism, because, Herbert contends, many of the environmental influences that probably contribute to autism will likely affect all of us in time.

While the development of autism may begin with genetic vulnerability, she argues, the emergence of the disorder begins after a tipping point is reached following a multitude of modern-day environmental exposures. The cumulative effects of these environmental stresses influence the expression of genes associated with autism, leading to a cluster of brain and body dysfunctions typical of this spectrum disorder. Autism rates are sharply rising because the biological systems of growing numbers of young people are running out of the resilience required amid burgeoning environmental challenges.

Sensory overload as environmental stressor 

Dr. Herbert explores environmental influences including toxins, emotional stress, infection, diet, and sensory overload. She cites many cases where people with autism got a lot better when specific changes in these environmental factors were made, thereby reducing assorted stresses on the brain and body. Eliminating the right stressors, which may require considerable trial and error, can allow some children to become significantly higher-functioning, healthier individuals.

city-night-explosion-fireworkIn any individual, whether or not autism is present, identifying and avoiding environmental seizure triggers can produce big improvements in a range of physical, cognitive, and emotional difficulties associated with seizure activity. Dr. Herbert suggests that seizures, which are not uncommon in people with autism, can cause or exacerbate some problem behaviors in this population.

The only study done to date on autism and photosensitivity indicates children on the autism spectrum have much higher rates of photosensitive epilepsy. Given the high rate of other types of epilepsy in those with autism, this is not surprising. To be quite clear, I’m not suggesting that video games cause autism, nor does Dr. Herbert. But preventing seizures that exacerbate autism symptoms can be a major stepping-stone to wellness.

Dr. Herbert outlines many steps parents can take, beyond seizure reduction, to limit exposure to things that can magnify autism symptoms and may contribute to its emergence. While not every approach works for every child with autism, she provides a range of additional strategies such as eliminating gluten, dairy, and food additives, regulating sleep, getting rid of toxic household chemicals, and reducing sensory overload.

“Too much sensory stimulation, trouble being coordinated, not enough sleep, seizures, not being able to say what you want—all can contribute to frustration and stress. Looking for solutions at each of these levels can help reduce the stress and increase the time spent truly learning and enjoying life.”

“Gray zone” electrical activity

Dr. Herbert does not assume that a finding of “no seizures” on an EEG means that visual stimuli are not affecting the brain’s normal electrical firing. The consequences of brain waves that are “somewhere between ‘normal’ and ‘disease,'” she contends, could be “subtle but still important”–even if no actual seizures are triggered. In other words, even mildly abnormal rhythms in the brain, which can be provoked in some individuals by exposure to visual overstimulation, may result in impaired neurological functioning. Even if your child has not been experiencing actual seizures, Dr. Herbert says these abnormal rhythms due to excessive sensory stimulation from visual media may actually affect the brain’s ability to process information.

“…A lot of kids with autism might be having ‘gray zone’ electrical problems—too mild to meet the formal definition of seizures, but enough to interfere with their quality of life.”

These “gray zone electrical problems” are not limited to those with autism. Other populations likely to be in this gray zone include people with learning disorders, intellectual disability, or psychiatric conditions—the more vulnerable among us. In other words, it may not make sense to dismiss as irrelevant the EEG abnormalities that don’t clearly indicate seizures.

Reducing overload

If your child is on the autism spectrum, you probably already know to reduce your child’s sensory overload. One way to do that is to limit screen time and avoid overstimulating content. Try eliminating video games for a few days and see if your child begins to feel better and struggle less with learning, attention, emotions, and behavior. (Your child may be initially quite resistant to this experiment, which will temporarily make things more stressful. To get a fair reading on the effect, you need a few days free of any withdrawal symptoms.) During this video-game-free time all visually overstimulating media should be avoided, including fast-paced cartoons, movies, and music videos.

Those whose children aren’t on the autism spectrum should also take note. By applying the canary-in-the-coal-mine model, we may yet learn that visual overstimulation can profoundly affect the functioning and health of many people, including those without autism. When the visual system of anyone with hidden photosensitivity is no longer overloaded by daily video games, lives can be transformed.

Could anyone in your family be affected? It’s something to think about.

 


Seizure protection in a bottle!

With this blue tint, opticians can apply effective photosensitive seizure protection to plastic lenses.

If your local optician can tint eyeglasses, it’s now possible to get protection from visually triggered seizures without ordering therapeutic Zeiss lenses. Lenses tinted using the new Deep Blue Zee lens tint are nearly the same color and appear to be just as effective as Zeiss Z1 F133 lenses.

Brain Power Inc. of Miami, and its UK arm, Brain Power Ltd. of Warwickshire, England, have introduced a cobalt blue optical tint that, according to the company, is nearly identical to the color-filtering specifications of the Z1 F133 lenses used in Capovilla’s photosensitivity studies. Brain Power, which supplies optical tints and laboratory equipment to opticians, optometrists, ophthalmologists, and lens manufacturers, developed the Deep Blue Zee tint specifically for photosensitivity protection. BPI describes itself as the world’s largest manufacturer of optical tints, chemicals, and instruments.

My daughter has been wearing a locally tinted pair for the past week and is finding them quite effective. She actually prefers them to the Zeiss because they aren’t quite as dark and therefore don’t darken her entire view as much. Because they’re not as dark, she is still able to see when watching DVDs from farther away from the screen.

The therapeutic properties of the Z1 F133 lens are due to its color and the way it blocks out shades of red. The amount of light a lens lets in across the color spectrum is measured by a spectrometer and shown in a spectrum curve (see graphs below), and each lens color has a unique spectrum curve. Capovilla and colleagues tried many colors and lens types before settling on the cobalt blue shade that lets in very little light in the red part of the spectrum. The big dip in this graph, excerpted from Capovilla’s 2006 study, shows that very little light is transmitted through the lens in the range of red wavelengths, measured in nanometers.

This is the Z1 spectrum curve from the Capovilla studies:

BPI set out to make a tint with the same light transmittance properties.  As the spectrum curve of Deep Blue Zee shows, it’s very close to the Z1 specifications in keeping out red wavelengths:

For the tint to be absorbed properly by the lens, the lens needs to be made of a particular plastic lens material, a plastic called C-39. If you have existing lenses you’d like tinted, they need to be made of CR-39 and can’t already have a hard coating that would prevent the lens from absorbing tint. BPI recommends that the lens be kept in the dye solution for at least 30 minutes to achieve the proper color. According to BPI, after half an hour of immersion in the dye, the absorption process goes more slowly.

As we’ve discovered in the past week, although the locally tinted ones weren’t as dark as the Zeiss lenses, it doesn’t seem to matter. If the lenses turn out not as dark as you’d like, your optician can make them darker by returning them to the dye solution for a little while. The price for tinted lenses will vary depending on the brand/quality of lens that your optician uses. And the quality and effectiveness may vary as well, depending on the optician’s skill, judgment, and choice of lens manufacturer.

The optician who tinted Alice’s blue lenses is:

Paul Dimos, owner

Eye Look Optical
1760 Massachusetts Ave
Lexington, MA 02420

email: eyelookoflexington@gmail.com
phone: 781-862-4510
fax: 781-674-0366

The same day we got the new clip-ons, I had the idea that Alice might be able to watch certain DVDs (no anime!) on a small screen without needing to take so many breaks. She is doing well watching DVDs on a portable 7-inch DVD player. She sits several feet away from it so that the screen doesn’t take up too much of her field of vision. If she sat very close, that would cancel out the advantage of a small image that by its size minimizes the impact of video on her brain.

We now have a spare pair of cobalt blue clip-ons, allowing us the opportunity to compare the two side by side. Can you tell which is which?

One pair from Zeiss and the other tinted by our optician.