The Next Germ Nightmare: Movie VR Headsets

As virtual reality comes to malls, multiplexes and roller coasters, personal hygiene is both an issue and an opportunity for startups cornering the market on cleanliness.
Courtesy of Mat Smith/Engadget; Courtesy of Samsung
Ninja Masks can be bought in packs of 100 for about $35.

As virtual reality goes commercial, the latest gadgetry is about to run up against the most mundane of problems: personal hygiene. Beyond home use, VR headsets are being eyed for a growing number of entertainment venues. Imax recently revealed plans to bring location-based VR experiences to multiplexes and malls, and Samsung and Six Flags have opened their first VR roller coasters. But headsets can be costly: At the low end of the VR spectrum, there are devices such as Google Cardboard or the $99 Samsung Gear VR that use a mobile phone for display, but high-end systems for personal use range from $600 to $800 and require desktop computers. So in public settings, patrons will be offered gear that is recycled from user to user. But as those headsets are passed from one perspiring head to the next, there is a growing concern they could effectively become wearable petri dishes.

Behind the flashy presentations taking place at the E3 gaming confab in Los Angeles, which runs June 14 through June 16, insiders already are looking for solutions. But for now, options are limited. One cheap fix, though far from fashionable, is a sort of surgical mask with the center cut out for VR goggles. Called a Ninja Mask, the VR hygiene pad is made by the Japan-based Mogura VR and can be purchased in packages of 100, listing in the $30 to $35 range. But it's questionable whether consumers, in an entertainment setting, will be willing to wear the strange-looking masks before donning VR headgear. Meanwhile, L.A.-based VR firm Spaces, which has a joint venture with Chinese theme park operator Songcheng Performance, is exploring solutions beyond face masks and sanitary wipes. "There's room for innovation in that area," Spaces CTO Brad Herman tells THR. "We are looking at industrial-scale methods," though he admits no method for sanitizing headsets has been decided upon.

The VR industry could take its cue from how 3D glasses are handled: While RealD relies on cheap, single-use disposable 3D glasses, which is financially impractical for VR headsets, Dolby uses glasses that are cleaned after each use with a specialized industrial washing machine. "Goggle washers will have to be considered," says Guy Primus, CEO and co-founder of The Virtual Reality Co., which created Fox's The Martian VR Experience and is working with motion-seat developer D-Box on immersive VR experiences. "We've had that conversation. It's an issue that absolutely is being talked about."

This story first appeared in the June 24 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

comments powered by Disqus