Rumors about hot, new technology are almost always exciting, except when the rumor is about a potential health hazard.
Recently, a developer posted a chat screenshot on Twitter of a person claiming to have contracted ocular herpes from a dirty virtual reality headset. And that post has some VR fans absolutely freaking out.
That claim, which has been shared widely on social media, hasn't been substantiated and the Twitter user didn't respond to a request for comment regarding the post.
But when you consider how many people share VR headsets at offices, parties and, egad, conferences, the anxiety around picking up something horrible from a VR headset is more than understandable.
But relax, folks. The VR yuckiness isn't as bad as advertised.
"The chance of getting the herpes simplex virus from a VR headset is so remote, it’s practically non-existent," says Dr. Rebecca Taylor, a Nashville-based ophthalmologist and a spokesperson for the American Academy of Ophthalmology. "Transmission is person to person, you mainly get it from close contact from oral secretions."
According to Dr. Taylor, in general, a person who self-diagnoses and claims to have contracted ocular herpes from a VR headset is likely to have already contracted the virus in the aforementioned, traditional manner prior to donning the device.
New York-based Dr. Benjamin Azan agrees. "[Herpes simplex virus] can survive outside the body from a second to days. That said, just because it survives doesn't mean it has the capability to infect a new host," says Dr. Azan, an emergency physician in New York City and a VR enthusiast. "Fomite [inanimate object] transmission is generally accepted as very unlikely. Also, there is the fact that VR headsets don't come in contract with common Herpes infection sites: usually around the lips, genitalia, and, possibly, but rarely, ocular. Can you get herpes on your cheek or on your forehead? Sure, but it's very rare."
And while both doctors agree that getting the virus from a VR headset is unlikely, it's not completely impossible.
"The virus is known to survive longer is warm, damp environments," says Dr. Azan. "So it is in the realm of possible that someone has a lesion on their cheek, right at the location of the headset rim, they play, and then the headset is passed directly to another player, causing a spread. But it all seems like a very unlikely chain of events."
Ok, so ocular herpes via VR headset freakout mode: OFF.
But what about pink eye, otherwise known as conjunctivitis?
"It's quite contagious, and generally accepted to be transmitted via fomites," says Dr. Azan. "With conjunctivitis, if someone is touching their eyes, then touches the headset then someone else touches the headset and then scratches their eye, this could cause transmission. But so can a handshake at a business meeting [followed by eye touching]."
What this all adds up to is that there is no need to start worrying about unsanitary VR headsets any more than you might worry about something like sharing a keyboard or mouse. But still, these are devices we're putting on our faces, so it will make some of us feel better to have a bit protection, even if it's mostly superficial.
To that end, a number of companies have sprung up offering VR headset face covers to address the needs of the germaphobes who also like to regularly dive into VR.
"I've found that hygiene is an issue to VR users, especially for VR developers and enthusiasts that often share their headsets with many people," says Qasim Aaron, founder of Bandit VR, a company that makes stylized VR headset face covers. "I feel uncomfortable sharing a 'naked' headset, especially if it's been passed around on many people’s faces."
And as more and more demos of games, films and general promotions are delivered in VR at public events, the issue of VR headset hygiene is only gaining steam.
"The problems I found were moisture from sweat, especially from VR content that is heavily interactive, as well as makeup, oils and general germs that reside on faces accumulated on headsets," says Aaron. "These headsets were then continually being placed on their faces, creating a genuine worry for even the least ‘germaphobic’ person."
In Japan, where it's common for even a minor head cold to lead to a person wearing a surgical mask to protect others from germs, the VR face cover trend has already taken off among companies offering VR experiences. Fueled by popular local VR event spaces like the VR Zone space in Tokyo, local VR face cover suppliers have sprung up online, providing all manner of disposable masks.
So while picking up germs from VR headsets hasn't become a major issue (yet), we can at least give ourselves some sense of security by using the widely available face covers.
And if you happen to be at a conference or an event and need to share a VR headset, but don't have a face cover handy, Dr. Taylor recommends at least wiping the device down with a one of the commercially available bleach germicidal wipes (because bleach-based products do a better job of combating germs than alcohol-based products).
However, Dr. Taylor says, "I can't tell you definitively that there's any specific maneuver that going to protect you," warning that even wiping down a VR headset is no guarantee that you won't pick up a germ from the device.
Nevertheless, as computers migrate from our pockets and laps to our faces, it's good to know that the VR revolution won't involve subjecting ourselves to a new array of health concerns beyond confusing VR with reality and normal eye strain.
Dive on in, those VR headsets beckoning you to enter a new world of immersive wonder are (probably) just fine.