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VR pink eye isn’t something to be afraid of

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The fears are overblown, and protecting yourself is easy

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PlayStation VR headset PlayStation

Gaming conventions are also germ conventions. All those people milling about in close proximity, breathing the same air, touching the same controllers—it’s a great way to catch a cold. The post-show crud is a well-known, often discussed malady that hits people after attending shows like E3 or PAX.

Now, there may be a new disease to fear: ocular herpes.

YouTuber Drift0r tweeted a screenshot of a private conversation between game developers in which they discuss how ocular herpes—that’s herpes of the eye—is “going around” thanks to sharing virtual reality headsets. This made news, and seemed to confirms some people’s largest fear about the technology: It will spread disease.

It sounds like the stuff of nightmares, but this is also the case of someone telling someone else that a third person said this happened. This is kind of shaky, but worth looking into.

Are you really likely to catch ocular herpes from sharing a VR headset?

“I think the risk is very low but, probably not zero,” said Dr. Erich Horn, an ophthalmologist based in Oakland, California. “There have been lots of shared headsets: from swimming goggles, to wearing someone else’s glasses and I can’t think of a single case of ocular herpes being transmitted that way in 20 years of my clinical practice.”

He added that there really isn’t any part of a VR headset that comes in direct contact with the eyes, so transmission likely would occur only if someone with an active eye infection rubbed their eyes, touched the headset and then you touched it and rubbed your eyes, without any pause to sanitize either your hands or the device.

This is the same sort of interaction that could happen with a game controller, or any object that is touched by multiple people at a gaming show.

Another image of the roll of adhesive strips for the Oculus Rift
Oculus uses disposable liners for its demos
Ben Kuchera/Polygon

Moreover, even if you caught ocular herpes at a gaming convention, there’s a good chance you might not ever know.

Ocular herpes is most commonly caused by herpes simplex virus type 1 (HSV-1), the type that usually causes cold sores around the mouth, according to Dr. John Gonzales, an ophthalmologist at the Francis I. Proctor Foundation for Research in Ophthalmology at the University of California, San Francisco. However, Gonzales said nearly everyone contracts HSV-1 by age 30, and many never show symptoms during the lifelong infection.

Does it make you feel better about the situation to know that most of the people reading this have already been infected and it will never be an issue for them?

Though it can cause painful, oozing blisters around the eyes, ocular herpes usually just causes pink eye — an inflammation of the lining of the eye — and resolves on its own. Many people who come in with this sort of presentation aren’t tested for herpes, Gonzales said, since there’s no treatment for pink eye when it’s caused by a virus.

But even then, ocular herpes is usually not the culprit.

“Probably the most common viral infection [that causes pink eye] is adenovirus. It’s not herpes,” Gonzales said.

Vive Pre
VR equipment doesn’t actually touch your eyes, making it just as safe, or dangerous, as sharing eye glasses or ski goggles

Nevertheless, herpes can sometimes cause more serious complications if it gets into parts of the eye like the cornea. When that happens, it can cause scarring, which leads to vision loss. Gonzales said that anyone with symptoms of pink eye, regardless of the cause, should just stay home until the infection goes away.

“Pink eye is easily transmissible,” Gonzales said. “Someone touches their eye, they touch something else, and then someone else touches that thing and touches their eye.”

This has nothing to do with virtual reality, and everything to do with common sense and hygiene. There was one case of pink eye reported in the press due to virtual reality equipment, and the writer of the story later found out his symptoms were caused by a burst blood vessel.

Your virtual reality equipment at home should be kept clean, just like any object that regularly touches your skin or the skin of others. Oculus, Sony, and HTC all say to remove the facial cushion from the headset and to wipe it down with cold water or non-abrasive anti-bacterial wipes — not alcohol. The key, here, is to let those cushions completely dry to kill off pathogens.

And developers already have solutions for keeping the equipment properly maintained. Andy Moore, a developer at Radial Games, told Polygon he takes cushion sanitation very seriously at conventions.

“Between each play session we swap out the foam band, it pops out pretty easily or is just velcro'd on, and we have a ton of spares, and wipe it down and set it aside until it dries out,”

He told Polygon in an email. He also said that he uses disposable protective barriers provided by the manufacturers to put on top of the foam cushions between each new player. Even if disease weren’t a concern, they would still do it out of courtesy. No one wants to feel or think about the facial sweat of the last player.

“The alternative is handing someone a wet sponge and asking them to put it on their face, which is just crass,” Moore continued. “Don't do that! To anyone! Not just strangers, but family and friends too. Nobody wants that.”

Of course, it’s harder to keep track of how well VR headsets are maintained in places like gaming stores and kiosks, where employees may not pay as close attention to when VR headsets are passed around. In that case, you might want to bring your own personal VR condom.

Gonzales recommended that players also sanitize their hands after using any controller or headset, since diseases are easily transmitted through touching objects and then touching mucous membranes in the eyes, nose, and mouth.

But wait, did this actually happen?

As for the game developer who apparently contracted ocular herpes from the headset, Gonzales said he wasn’t sure how the developer might have come to that conclusion. Sometimes ocular herpes has unique features that make it look a little different from pink eye. Or it’s possible that the developer had a more serious presentation.

It’s also possible this story is just something someone heard about someone else, and is being passed around a bit as an urban legend. In the original tweet, we see a redacted conversation where another person heard another person heard this happened.

Without confirmation from someone that this case, or any case, actually exists, it’s likely not worth getting nervous about VR equipment.

Moore said he had never heard of anyone catching something from a VR headset at a gaming convention. There also haven’t been any reports in the medical literature, and Gonzales said he had never heard of a case in his practice, either. So far, after years of shows and tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of players lining up to try demo equipment, there has not been a single confirmed case of anyone catching ocular herpes that we have been able to find.

So, you’re probably safe, relatively speaking. VR equipment is no more or less dangerous than the rest of the controllers and gaming equipment you’re using at conventions, and requires the same care and basic cleaning already given to the equipment. This is simply an old, oversized fear about sharing equipment applied to new technology.

But please, if you’re sick, or if your eye is all gunky and red, just stay home. That has nothing to do with VR; it’s just common sense.