For some people, the quick flashes or bright colors of online advertisements can set off seizures in a matter of seconds.
Now researchers at the University of Wisconsin at Madison have designed the Photosensitive Epilepsy Analysis Tool—or PEAT—a free software tool that will help Web developers design safer Web pages and advertisements.
About one in every 4,000 Americans has photosensitive epilepsy, said Gregg Vanderheiden, director of the university’s Trace Center, where the software was developed. A number of things can trigger this kind of seizure, he said, including mouse-over advertisements that cause large sections of a screen to flash quickly and repeatedly, flashes of bright colors (especially red), and certain patterns.
Thanks in part to an incident involving a televised Pokémon clip that aired in Japan in 1997, video-game designers and broadcast directors have already developed software to detect the triggers. The flashing of the segment, combined with the color red, put several hundred Japanese children and adults in the hospital, Mr. Vanderheiden said. Several hundred more followed after the clip was re-aired on the evening news.
But the guidelines for computers are different, since users almost always sit closer to their computer than they would to their television screens.
When developers use PEAT to test their product before it is released, the software will ensure there are no more than three “general” flashes and three red flashes on the page in any given second, and that the combined area of flashing doesn’t exceed a certain amount of the screen.
There have been about 195 downloads of the software in the last month, Mr. Vanderheiden said. A number of other companies have shown interest, including AOL and Microsoft.
In the future, Mr. Vanderheiden said, researchers hope to develop tools that allow consumers to filter content themselves. This would mean software that could mute or freeze flashing frames on a television, and programs that could direct users away from some Web pages.
“The goal is to create a tool that detects provocative material and avoids it, so you’re not in a situation where you’re trying to figure out how to quickly get off a page and not have a seizure,” Mr. Vanderheiden said.