- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 5, 2009

MILWAUKEE — Wisconsin researchers have released a free software tool that could help Web surfers who are susceptible to certain seizures.

An estimated one in 4,000 people has photosensitive epilepsy and could suffer a seizure when exposed to bright colors and rapidly flashing images. The condition gained prominence in 1997 when more than 800 Japanese children were hospitalized after viewing a cartoon. Since then, television directors, video-game makers and others have tested their content to make sure it doesn’t reach seizure-inducing thresholds.

Web developers, though, didn’t have simple ways to run such tests. Researchers at the University of Wisconsin at Madison set out to change that.

“On the Web you really never know what’s going to pop up on the screen until it does, and one second later you could be having a seizure,” said Gregg Vanderheiden, the center’s director.

Web developers can use the Photosensitive Epilepsy Analysis Tool, or PEAT, to determine how fast an image blinks, for example, and let developers know whether it poses a seizure risk.

Content that doesn’t pass the test isn’t always risky. Researchers say flashy content that doesn’t fill at least 10 percent of a screen isn’t a danger.

Robert Fisher, the director of the Stanford Epilepsy Center in Palo Alto, Calif., said he knew of “dozens of clips” on YouTube that can provoke seizures. He advises viewers with epilepsy to avoid any sites where content blinks and flashes and to be ready to avert their eyes if necessary.

Dr. Giuseppe Erba, a neurology professor at the University of Rochester in New York, said Web developers now have a responsibility to use the testing tool to make sure the content they produce is safe.

Mr. Vanderheiden said his next priority is to create tools that give epileptics control over what is shown so that they wouldn’t have to rely on Web developers to run PEAT.

One option is a software tool that could detect and disable all blinking content, he said. Another might dim the contrast on the screen to mute the effect of changing colors.

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