An animated version of the new London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games logo has sparked controversy throughout the media. The bright, flashing sequence of images is so busy is it causing seizures in people who have photosensitive epilepsy. Even more alarmingly, it may even cause seizures in people who are unaware that they are at risk.
Peter Fox explains.
The new logo designed for the 2012 Olympic games in London has been extremely controversial since its unveiling on 4 June. No one liked it. The criticisms have included its looking like a Nazi swastika, looking like graffiti, looking too eighties, looking too nineties, only appealing to young people, not reflecting British culture... the list goes on. Thousands of people have signed petitions to have it scrapped and even Ken Livingston, the Mayor of London, has publicly slated it.
The committee who commissioned the logo hoped to generate hundreds of thousands of pounds of revenue from branded baseball caps, T-shirts, mugs and teddies. This seems unlikely given the public backlash against the logo. Unfortunately, things have only continued to get worse. Very much worse.
As part of the London 2012 media launch, a short film containing an animated version of the logo has been shown on television. The animated images flicker at high speeds and include bold geometric patterns and bright flashing colours. More specifically, they do virtually everything known to trigger seizures in people with photosensitive epilepsy.
With the film being televised, Epilepsy Action was inundated with complaints from unsuspecting members of the public who have found that the video has triggered an epileptic seizure. This seems particularly inconsiderate of the London 2012 committee, given exactly who they are attempting to include and represent.
Ingrid Burns of the Epilepsy Action public relations team said: “The brand incorporates both the Olympic and Paralympic Games, which is ironic as the latter is a showcase for athletes with disabilities.”
At least 30 people are known to have had seizures as a direct result of the video. Many more people have reported feeling dizzy or sick while watching it. The London 2012 committee have come under heavy criticism, particularly considering the risk to young children who may have photosensitive epilepsy.
Although this form of epilepsy is relatively rare – only five per cent of people with epilepsy have the photosensitive variety – it still affects around 23,000 people in Britain and a majority of these are children. Photosensitive epilepsy is most common in seven- to 19-year-olds – the very group that the animated film has been aimed at.
In need of guidance
This mistake is very embarrassing for London 2012. Everything on television is supposed to be checked to make sure it is safe for people with epilepsy to watch. Evidently something has gone wrong here, however, if people are having such a strong reaction to these moving images.
Professor Graham Harding is the top UK specialist in the field of photosensitive epilepsy. He explained to The Mirror: “When I saw it on the news, I immediately knew there would be a problem. Anything that goes out on TV must comply with the Ofcom guidelines on photosensitivity. This restricts the flash rate to three flashes per second, or says that the image must be very dim or must take up less than 25 per cent [a quarter] of the screen.”
In the light of these recommendations, it seems obvious that the film complies with none of them. The images are far from dim; they are bright and vibrant and certainly take up the whole screen with their zigzagging patterns. The flashing bursts of colour also appear more than three times each second, sometimes exploding on screen too fast for the eye to keep track of.
Based on these recommendations, Professor Harding formulated a scale of the frequencies and patterns that are safe/unsafe for people with epilepsy. He has worked with Ofcom – the organisation that exists to regulate our viewing to make sure it is safe and appropriate – to create regulations designed to protect viewers with epilepsy. He even designed equipment that can test each and every television programme.
Harding explains: “There is a machine, that every broadcaster has, called the Harding Flashpattern Analyser.” If every broadcaster has one of these machines, why wasn’t one of them used to check the animated film? Whether this would have been the responsibility of London 2012 or the BBC remains unclear, but what is clear is that it should have been checked before being televised. Unsurprisingly, Harding adds: “When the Olympic film was checked yesterday, it failed.”
Just a moment
When you actually watch the film, it seems like such a small thing to have created so much controversy. The worst portion of the video occurs around a minute and a half in and probably only lasts a few seconds. It doesn’t sound too life-changing, but incredibly these few seconds can have an extremely serious impact for anyone who has had a seizure as a result.
Some of the people who have experienced seizures will have had a particularly nasty shock – since their epilepsy was previously well controlled. These seizures are what we call a ‘breakthrough’ seizure, when someone has – until that point – had their condition under control with medication, often leading a perfectly ‘normal’ life to all intents and purposes.
Although one breakthrough seizure doesn’t sound so bad, the implications can be quite drastic. Anyone who was diagnosed with epilepsy and has even one seizure will lose their driving license for a minimum of one year. Aside from the obvious concerns of having difficulties getting around in general, losing your driving license may affect your work.
Even if you do not have a history of epilepsy, in the UK you are required to tell the Driving and Vehicle Licensing Agency (DVLA) if you have a single seizure. If the seizure may be linked to even the possibility of epilepsy, you will still lose your driving license and may face the same problems.
One of the most worrying things about this situation is that people who do not have epilepsy – or at least, people who have never been diagnosed with it – have experienced seizures after watching the video. Even if the seizure turns out to be an isolated incident, these people will no doubt be extremely upset and confused by the situation. Many may worry that the video has kicked previously inactive epilepsy into action.
Given how serious some of the consequences of this video may be, it is unclear exactly how London 2012 will respond to the complaints about its conduct. Alison Knight, of Epilepsy Action’s public relations department, clarifies: “We have received numerous reports of people having epileptic seizures after seeing the moving version of the 2012 Olympic brand, with its flashing and moving multi-coloured images.
“We are asking the Olympics Committee to withdraw the moving version of the brand until further tests have been carried out and any necessary changes are made. This version of the Olympic brand should not be screened further until it is known that it poses no risk.”
The video has since been withdrawn. According to reports, London 2012 are currently refusing to pay the agency responsible for the promotional video on the grounds the film has not fulfilled its brief in proving a useful operational tool for promoting the Olympics. This report is unsubstantiated. Currently, Ofcom are looking into exactly who is responsible for allowing the video to go out on air without being tested for its safety.
Whatever the outcome of the current situation, Epilepsy Action is committed to making sure that viewers with epilepsy are safe when they switch on their television sets. The public relations team is working on all sides with Ofcom, London 2012 and several members who have experienced seizures as a result of the video. Hopefully, Epilepsy Action can help prevent something like this happening again.
The organisation will continue to raise awareness of how films like this can have a serious impact on the lives of people with epilepsy. With any luck, media coverage like this – while creating problems in the short term – can help to bring the condition into the public eye, creating an opportunity to help educate people about epilepsy for a more positive future.
The light of knowledge – photosensitive epilepsy facts
- Both natural and artificial sources of light can trigger seizures in people with photosensitive epilepsy. Reflected sunlight or flashing disco lights can both cause problems. The most common trigger for this kind of epilepsy, however, is television.
- Bold geometric colours and patterns may contribute to a seizure for people with photosensitive epilepsy.
- This form of the condition is most common between the ages of seven and 19 and appears to affect more females than males.
- Although various types of seizures can occur in photosensitive epilepsy, tonic-clonic seizures are the most common.
- Sitting near to the television is more likely to trigger a seizure. The nearer you are to the television set, the more of your field of vision is taken up by the flickering images. Also, the closer you sit to your screen, the more your eyes see the problematic frequencies that cause seizures in the brain. Both these things make a seizure more likely.
To minimise the likelihood of triggering a seizure if you have photosensitive epilepsy:
- View your television in a well-lit room from at least 2.5 metres (8.2 feet) away, with a small table lamp on top of the television.
- Try to avoid approaching the set to change channel or adjust volume (remote controls come in very handy for people with photosensitive epilepsy). If you have to approach the set, cover one eye to reduce the number of brain cells exposed to the images.
- Change your telly. Televisions with 100Hz screens are now available. These are no risk at all to around 50 per cent [half] of people with photosensitive epilepsy and may be worth the investment. Newer types of screens, such as LCD screens, are usually less of a risk than a regular TV set.