The fact a virtual reality headset can often be worn by over 100 people in one day at a convention has heightened concerns of catching eye diseases among the VR community.
A screenshot by gaming personality Brad Overbey — commonly known by his YouTube handle Drift0r — tells the tale of an unfortunate developer who allegedly contracted ocular herpes from a VR headset.
“Ocular herpes is going around VR headsets, ones that are used to share with people. [Unnamed game studio] told us it’s going around,” messaged one of the anonymous developers, “have to clean headsets regularly.”
“Simplex virus [unnamed game studio] told us, [unlucky Dev 3] got it,” another developer added.
EYE HERPES IS SPREADING VIA VR HEADSETS! You know those big events where people try VR for the first time? Well this dev got herpes from it! pic.twitter.com/ngNQK5QiFB
— Drift0r (@Drift0r) October 25, 2016
According to the National Eye Institute, roughly 400,000 Americans suffer from some type of ocular herpes, and there are close to the 50,000 new and recurring cases every year. Symptoms can include irritation, inflammation, pain and, at its worst, ocular herpes causes blindness.
“They really didn’t even want me to post that image, even in its edited form,” Overbey told VRScout in an email. “Leaks are a touchy subject but herpes is even more personal/shameful.”
VRScout wasn’t able to independently verify the story with the developers, and Overbey said they are unwilling to come forward.
Eye expert Dr. Gary Heiting, senior editor of AllAboutVision.com, said it’s possible but unlikely you can catch ocular herpes from a headset.
“The risk of contracting ocular herpes from wearing a VR headset is quite low (but not impossible),” Heiting told VRScout in an email. “I am unaware of any research that shows a connection between sharing a VR display (or ski goggles or sunglasses) and the spread of the herpes simplex virus.”
You can catch ocular herpes from direct contact with an infected person or a previous mouth herpes infection could develop into the disease, according to the Harvard Digital Journal of Ophthalmology.
“It could have been an infection that occurred at the same time but was unrelated to sharing a VR display,” Heiting said.
But he warned the low risk doesn’t mean you shouldn’t sanitize headsets after every use.
“It is a good idea to clean any portion of the VR display device that touches the skin around the eyes with an alcohol wipe prior to use,” Heiting said. “Such a precaution also would help reduce the amount of bacteria (as well as viruses) from the device.”
Numerous VR hygiene products have cropped up on the Internet to address the concerns of germophobes wearing headsets. On Amazon alone, you can find at least seven companies selling disposable VR hygiene masks that come in 50 to 1,000 piece sets.
Qasim Aaron a student at the University of Waterloo, has designed a personal hygiene mask for VR users called Bandit VR. Aaron told VRScout in an interview he had a “lightbulb moment” after his brother caught an eye infection from a headset.
“I figured this was going to be a legitimate problem and I felt held to find a solution for it,” Aaron said, “if not for ourselves, for other people.”
As any VR user knows, sweat and heat can quickly build up when you’re wearing a headset and lead to an uncomfortable and unhygienic environment. And sanitizing the headset with a wipe might not be enough, Aaron said.
“The problem itself is you’re putting multiple people’s face in one area, and you’re just wiping it,” Aaron said. “Cool, you’re wiping it, but you’re still putting one thing on multiple people’s faces. So that was our angle.”
After speaking about the issue to over 100 people in the VR industry and meeting many who had caught pink eye from VR conventions, Aaron found hygiene is a concern that only grows when brought to light.
“Hygiene is a concern for people,” Aaron said, “but it’s funny, it’s only once you kind of mention it or bring light to it — or somebody has a negative experience and they share it — then all of a sudden people flock to it.”