Home / Technology / HTC takes its own magic leap, announces Vive Proton prototype headset

HTC takes its own magic leap, announces Vive Proton prototype headset

Thanks to the cancellation of next week’s scheduled Mobile World Congress, tech companies are beginning to come forward with their previously planned MWC announcements. One of those, from HTC’s Vive division, mostly revolves around plans to double-down on its consumer-grade Vive Cosmos VR headset. The company has announced three new models of the Cosmos, and each is a spin on the existing Cosmos system, only with new swappable “face plates.”

The thing is, we’ve yet to go hands-on with any of these new versions of the Cosmos, which HTC says it’ll remedy soon enough. In the meantime, if we’re going to talk about unproven hardware, why not shoot for the moon?

That brings us to HTC’s wackiest Thursday announcement: the HTC Vive Proton. This brand-new “prototype” headset system, as pictured above, is built around HTC’s belief that “immersive” headset experiences will, for the foreseeable future, be a blend of virtual reality, augmented reality, and mixed reality. As a result, the Proton is built around this concept of being able to see your real-life environs, with a certain level of 3D content superimposed on top, depending on what a given game or app demands.

In a phone interview with Ars Technica, HTC Vive President Dan O’Brien did not clarify whether the Proton will show users’ real-life surroundings via a “pass-through” camera (a la the HTC Vive Pro‘s optional toggle) or as a clear view of the outside world through transparent glass (a la Magic Leap and Hololens).

While O’Brien insists that the first image in the above gallery is a shot of “an actual working prototype,” this picture is missing the “lightweight component” that houses the system’s processors, memory, battery, and 5G modem. While O’Brien didn’t describe the shape or size of this object, he didn’t deny our suggestion that it resembles the processing “puck” attached to the Magic Leap augmented-reality headset system. Meaning: this headset connects to some sort of battery-powered device that you can expect to attach to a belt or hip in some fashion.

“A tethered 5G experience that helps with rendering will be beneficial and safer for the user,” O’Brien said in a phone interview. “It’ll be more comfortable for the user, so you don’t pack in too much weight, battery, and heat in the headset.” O’Brien pointed to consumer concerns about attaching a 5G modem to a device that’s strapped onto a user’s head: “We don’t see the viability of putting 5G antennas on people’s foreheads.”

One of O’Brien’s comments lends credence to this being a truly working prototype: that it currently only works with a “three degrees of freedom” (3DOF) controller, even though the headset itself can handle six degrees of freedom (6DOF) for all head movement. In other words, you can safely walk and move your head while wearing the current Proton and expect virtual images to move and translate in kind, but the controller will only appear with a simpler “relative” positioning in virtual space. (If you’re wondering how this works, read my Oculus Go review from late 2018. The short version: It’s the worst part of using Oculus Go’s apps.) O’Brien says the system “will work with 6DOF controllers in the future.”

O’Brien emphasized multiple times in our conversation that HTC had no further specs or details to confirm at this time. He also wasn’t willing to mention any other hardware manufacturers or partners who may be involved in its production. “We’re still developing this product,” he said. “We will feed out more information as we refine this product in 2020.” While a prototype device like this would make sense to show off at an expo like Mobile World Congress, particularly with behind-closed-doors demos to build its mystique and buzz, we’re a bit confused as to why HTC would show off such a vague, forward-looking device. Perhaps it’s a reaction to Apple’s rumored plans for its own Proton-like device coming as soon as 2022.

Three more Vive Cosmos options: Face… off

The rest of HTC Vive’s Thursday announcements are about three new Vive Cosmos headsets: the Vive Cosmos Play, the Vive Cosmos Elite, and the Vive Cosmos XR. This is where things get a bit confusing, as each model is effectively the same headset… with the exception of each model’s faceplate.

All three new headsets come with the same form factor as the October 2019 Vive Cosmos. That means each has a “fast-switching” LCD panel with a 2880×1700 resolution and a 90Hz refresh rate, and they can all “flip up,” like a visor, when users want to take a break without taking the whole thing off. Where they differ from one another is in their faceplates, which can be snapped off and swapped as users see fit. Each faceplate sets the tone for how the headset tracks a given VR user’s space.

Some of these faceplates include cameras, which enable “inside-out” tracking. Others include the ability to sense SteamVR tracking boxes’ infrared signals and, thus, won’t work without having those boxes installed in your room. Whatever kind you pick, you’re stuck with its specific type of VR controller. Tracking boxes and inside-out cameras require separate controllers within the Vive Cosmos ecosystem, and HTC didn’t make either interoperable with the other.

We’ll start with the Cosmos Elite, which is the only new model with a price point as of this announcement. This system will launch “later in Q1” as an $899 bundle, and that includes a headset, two HTC Vive wands (meaning, the same design as the 2016 originals), and two SteamVR tracking boxes. If you already own an existing Cosmos and some spare SteamVR controllers and tracking boxes, you can buy a $199 faceplate, then swap the existing Cosmos faceplate out for the Cosmos Elite version. (Just because there aren’t that many people who fit that description doesn’t make the option any less cool, to HTC’s credit.)

Because Cosmos Elite revolves around “room-scale” tracking boxes, HTC is positioning it as a higher-end, more accurately tracked VR system, and that price point brings it $100 below the similar sales pitch of Valve’s $999 Valve Index bundle. However, Valve’s bundle comes with a higher maximum screen refresh rate, a higher fidelity speaker system, and the more sophisticated Valve Index Controllers (affectionately known as the Valve Knuckles), which grip neatly to users’ hands. Valve’s older Vive wands, on the other hand, have effectively been left in the dust thanks to most other VR controllers conforming to the Oculus Touch standard of buttons, triggers, and joysticks. (As O’Brien points out, the Cosmos Elite is compatible with the Index Controllers, which Valve sells separately.)

HTC has already made new Cosmos controllers, which truly mimic the Oculus Touch archetype of joysticks, buttons, and triggers. But, again, they won’t work with the Cosmos Elite bundle. Instead, you’ll get these controllers if you purchase either the Cosmos Play bundle or the Cosmos XR bundle. The former is positioned to be more affordable than the original $699 Vive Cosmos, and it will get to a lower price point by reducing its array of inside-out tracking cameras and downgrading its head strap’s build material and speaker quality.

But shortly after talking to O’Brien about the Cosmos Play bundle’s expected $499 price, we received an email update from an HTC Vive representative with a change of heart. ” After additional consideration, we’re taking a closer look at the price point for Cosmos Play to ensure the best value to our customers, and we look forward to sharing more soon,” the email stated. (This may be due to Oculus already offering two popular headsets at a lower price, let alone the average price for recommended Windows Mixed Reality bundles hovering in the $250 range.) HTC has not announced a launch date for the Cosmos Play bundle.

Meanwhile, the Cosmos XR bundle will include a faceplate that’s essentially a supercharged version of the original Cosmos. Its additional pair of front-facing cameras will capture and integrate “up to 100 degrees” of users’ real-life environs—meaning, you’ll see the world around you in a “passthrough” capacity. HTC expects to show this headset off at next month’s Game Developers Conference, along with compatible software, and we’ll report back on whether VR enthusiasts should be excited by its impending Q2 launch as a “developer kit.” HTC wasn’t ready to offer an expected price point, let alone a time estimate of when its consumer model might launch.

Listing image by HTC

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