Maintaining VR hygiene at shows

  |   John Kemp   |    Opinion

We’ve all been there haven’t we? You attend a gaming show, meetup, or some other kind of event and there’s some shiny new VR technology on display that you absolutely have to try. Particularly now with VR hitting its stride with the Vive and, more recently, PSVR bringing the technology into the mainstream in people’s living rooms, you have to assume there’s always going to be something new to try. However, that headset you’re trying on does bring something else along with it that’s perhaps not so appealing, namely any sweat, dirt, bacteria, and other nastiness that can be lifted off of the faces of the previous people to wear it. VR headset hygiene is currently a topic of discussion in the gaming community, so what are the problems and what can we do about it?

First, let’s hear a story from the player/attendee side. Based on her experience, Jupiter Hadley is firmly in the camp of advocating that developers clean the headsets between every use at a show. As she described to me:

Back when the first version of the Oculus Rift was out for developers, I attended an event that had a few headsets around with various indie games. I was very excited to see these virtual worlds that I could feel myself in. I stood in line in a poorly lit, hot room behind someone who was using the headset. Everyone in this room was hot, it was a humid day and the room was quite small for the amount of people in it, which is seemingly normal for games events. I watched the person before me, sweating like all of us, walk by and I was instantly handed the headset. The developer started helping me put it on, as I had never used one before. It was pressed to my face and as it pushed against my skin sweat dripped out of the foam-like frame around it. My first thought was “this is gross, I don’t want to do this.” The foam-like frame seemed to just absorb the last person’s sweat and then squish it out onto my face. I generally don’t sweat badly, so as it was removed, I could feel the ring of sweat where the frame had touched my face. I did enjoy the game being presented, but that experience of feeling the sweat drip out of it down my face was enough to make me pick and choose which headsets I try at events. If I see a developer cleaning the headset with wipes between each use, I am far more likely to try out that game.

Certainly giving the headset a wipe down between each use should be a reasonably obvious step to take when you think that this is a device that is literally being pressed against each person’s face. I tried a Vive recently at an event and despite the relatively cool room and low-activity application my face still became quite warm due to the lack of airflow. I can completely understand why the headset in Jupiter’s story was in such a bad state in typical gaming event conditions. Controller hygiene at shows has long been a point of contention, with the advice generally being that exhibitors should clean the controllers regularly and that the players should always assume the controllers are dirty and wash their hands as often as reasonably possible. Despite this, you can easily attend an event without once seeing a wet wipe or bottle of anti-bacterial gel. In my opinion this new point of contact should be seen as one to apply stricter cleaning standards to than we’ve managed for controllers, not looser.

I try out a game on the Samsung Gear VR at Gamerbake in Leamington.
I try out a game on the Samsung Gear VR at Gamerbake in Leamington.

While the collected facial sweat and dirt of several hundred people is enough to make me wary of headsets at events, there have been reports cropping up here and there of diseases spread by them. For example this screen capture of a conversation about someone contracting Herpes (presumably Herpes Simplex Keratitis) from a shared VR headset. Luckily for us, Polygon have published an article that gives several reasons why the events as described are unlikely to be accurate. Similarly, the author of this Destructoid article about contracting pink eye from a headset has updated it to give a much more mundane diagnosis (despite the headline remaining unchanged). One the other hand, and to be taken with a pinch of salt, this Reddit post describes a sequence of events where someone appears to have reinfected themself via a headset.

So if we assume that spreading of disease is theoretically possible but not yet reaching plague-like proportions then we’re left with sweat and dirt. Luckily there are ways of dealing with this that will also help combat the conditions mentioned previously along with the simpler illnesses that we collectively refer to as con flu. Even better, the steps require very little outlay or time.

First, and most obvious, clean the headset between uses. Joe Radak of Eerie Bear Games described the process his team used for cleaning demo headsets during PAX East in a post on Gamasutra and noted that “Numerous times we had people come up to me or Noah, even people who weren’t in line and were just passing by, thanking us for cleaning our gear”. His process was straightforward, consisting of wet wipes. One box of wet wipes lasted through a three day event, so the cost was minimal compared to everything else associated with exhibiting at a gaming event. Similarly, Jazmin Cano, who works with High Fidelity and frequently attends VR-related events, keeps a supply of wipes on hand when exhibiting and uses them to “clean the lens, the nose area, all three straps, and the over-ear headphones & wipe down controllers too”. She also uses alcohol for extra cleanliness. While the advice is often to avoid alcohol due to sensitivities, she has found no problems if the cleaned areas are allowed to breathe for 20-30 seconds. Much like Joe, she and the other people manning the stand with her are frequently thanked for taking headset hygiene seriously. She takes this approach because “[w]e’re building an amazing platform at High Fidelity and it would break my heart to hear someone turn down a demo because they got pink eye from an HMD before.”

An additional step Joe takes is to use a VR Cover, which is either a fabric or leather cover that wraps around the foam padding. The padding is the part that Jupiter had the biggest problem with and Joe confirmed can quickly become an issue with regard to sweat. The VR Cover fabric covers can be machine-washed, while the leather covers can be simply wiped down on a regular basis as you would with any other hard surface on the headset. At PAX East Joe used a fabric cover but has since changed to leather covers due to the easier cleaning process. As the covers come in pairs it might make sense to use one as a demo’ing cover and one as a “home” cover, which is Joe’s plan for the two he purchased. VR Cover also offer replacement padding made of memory foam with a leather outer layer, designed to be both more comfortable and more easily cleaned than the stock foam. For more detail on Joe’s cleaning recommendations you can check out his follow-up article. Jazmin also uses wipeable covers when running demos with a Vive, but has so far only been able to obtain cloth covers for the Oculus Rift.

A Vive with waterproof VR Cover.
A Vive with waterproof VR Cover.

Finally, there are two aspects mentioned to me by Jazmin that haven’t been getting much attention while reports of herpes and other eye-related diseases have been making the rounds, but are, nonetheless, an important part of making sure the entire experience is safe for the player. Firstly, she watches out for signs of head lice while people are waiting in line. Anyone with children can tell you how easily lice can spread from person to person even without a headset involved. Secondly, she makes sure to only use over-ear headphones when running demos as she considers in-ear alternatives to be too high a risk when shared by multiple people.

Of course, visitors should be as aware of the potential issues as the exhibitors. Don’t feel like you have to wear a headset that you’re not comfortable with the state of. Any developer who is insulted by you pointing out that the headset is in a bad unhygienic state probably shouldn’t be exhibiting VR games to start with. Don’t just immediately start accusing them of poor hygiene skills of course, it’s quite possible that their concentration has been taken up with guiding players, talking to observers, and the general bustle of the event. They may appreciate being told that the headset needs a look at. Also, most demos are fairly self-limiting in terms of time spent playing, but don’t wear an event headset for extended periods. Finally, if you have any kind of infection or condition that can be spread via contact then, for the sake of everyone else, don’t use the headset. You will have another chance.

If we follow these guidelines then maybe stories like the above can remain as outliers of dubious accuracy rather than becoming the norm. To close, I will quote Jazmin telling a short story that is almost the direct opposite of Jupiter’s story at the start of this article and shows how headset hygiene can create a much more inclusive atmosphere for people that would otherwise be wary of trying out VR.

At SSVR expo this year, there was one woman who wasn’t doing any demos for hygiene reasons and when she saw me cleaning [the headsets] while chatting she decided she’d try our demo. She got to experience at least 1 vr demo then. She had a blast in our demo. We have a social vr platform so it was full of silly activities and fun times!

John Kemp
I am a software developer by day and dip into a range of related activities in my spare time, including working on my own software projects, writing, proof-reading, and, of course, gaming of both the digital and boardgame varieties. I am slowly starting to sink my teeth into game development.