Now that its Vive and Vive Cosmos families have been firmly established as PC-tethered virtual reality headsets, HTC is tentatively looking toward a future where its hardware is used with 5G cellular devices, and considerably less bulky than its current goggles. That explains the company’s unexpected disclosure today of Project Proton, a pair of concept “display headsets” that could rely on a portable external device for processing and connectivity.

It’s worth noting up front that HTC is showing two concepts — neither final — but isn’t officially announcing details or putting out a formal press release. That’s because it’s hoping to solicit community feedback as it continues to develop the concept, and hasn’t yet decided whether to go after the “all-in-one” mixed reality headset market developed by Microsoft’s HoloLens, or the “all-in-two” market with separate processing units, represented by Magic Leap One and Nreal’s Light.

In either case, Proton takes a similar tack to Qualcomm’s lightweight XR Viewer designs, placing displays, cameras, and speakers inside a glasses-like frame. From the front, each Proton looks somewhat like giant aviator sunglasses with cameras peering through reflective lenses, but they both have oversized pads inside to block ambient light. The “all-in-one” model (above) has a Microsoft HoloLens 2-style processing and battery pack in the back as a counterweight for the display, while the “all-in-two” version (below) has a cable dangling down to a detached processing device.

The premise appears to be to use conventional VR-style displays plus front-facing AR cameras to let users enjoy either VR or AR experiences as needed. Obviously, moving the processor and battery components off the user’s head would considerably lighten the headset for greater comfort, but — absent a dedicated high-speed wireless connection between processor and displays — introduce the need for a cable.

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Beyond positioning itself as a rival in one or both of the increasingly important mixed reality markets, HTC apparently doesn’t want to place 5G hardware directly next to the user’s head. It’s unclear whether the company hopes to offer its own processing solution, such as a slenderized version of the HTC 5G Hub, or rely on third-party smartphones such as Qualcomm Snapdragon 855/865-series devices like Nreal Light does. In either case, a prototype headset internally supports 6DoF tracking plus an external 3DoF controller, with plans to support 6DoF controllers in the future.

It will be interesting to see whether and how Vive Proton makes it to market, as there will likely be quite a bit of competition over the next year or so, and HTC isn’t planning to release this during 2020. Apple is expected to release an iPhone-tethered consumer AR headset of its own at some point in the next two years, a fact that may be pushing HTC to show its hand early and establish its presence in the mobile VR space.