It twists your stomach to see someone else using virtual reality. The black box on their head appears to be a giant blindfold that’s hijacked their consciousness, convincing them to reach into the air and touch imaginary ghosts.
But a newly announced pair of prototypes from HTC, dubbed Project Proton, challenges the status quo of virtual or mixed reality headset design. They’ve replaced the black plastic wall over someone’s eyes with shiny, reflective lenses, which resemble ski goggles or sunglasses. It’s a subtle, ingenious tweak to the design that could make a real impact on what it’s like to interact with someone who is literally living inside their own virtual world.
To back up one step, the virtual reality headsets we saw debut a few years ago from Oculus and HTC have been quietly evolving in their capabilities. In the early days of VR, if you put on a VR headset, you were fully inside a simulation at all times.
This immersion came with all sorts of costs—especially disorientation. It’s shockingly easy to punch a wall when using VR in a small space. Increasingly, we’ve seen VR headsets adopt pass-through cameras. Instead of having actual clear lenses, like Microsoft’s mixed reality Hololens—which requires all sorts of tricky engineering to paint holograms onto your eyes—VR headsets are choosing video pass-through. Think of it like the backup camera most new cars have, which supplements the rear-view mirror. It means that when you put on the latest Oculus Quest headset, you see a video feed of your room, allowing you to step around furniture to make your way into a play space.
These video feeds will only get sharper and more natural to use over time, which will bring all of these VR headset designs the possibility of offering mixed reality or augmented reality. It means that the future of VR or AR is really a spectrum. Sometimes you’ll want to be fully inside a virtual world; other times, you’ll want digital information painted atop the real world. The headsets of today are poised to offer that gradient of experience. As an HTC spokesperson put it to me today, “We are working towards making products that work across the virtual continuum.”
Technologically, that’s exciting. It means someone in VR will actually be able to have one foot in the real world whenever they like. And in turn, it’s easy to imagine that every digital headset of the future will allow you to have a face-to-face conversation with someone in the analog world. But that brings us back to the problem of the black box on your head. It’s weird. It’s unnatural. Putting a black bar over someone’s eyes is literally a way that we anonymize photos. It simply doesn’t make sense as a design to be worn on your face.
Google tried to solve this problem in its Daydream headsets, which replaced black plastic with gray fabric. Now HTC is pushing the idea further. With these new prototype headsets, it’s borrowing from a design language that already solved this problem: sunglasses and ski goggles. When someone is in sunglasses, you can’t really see their eyes. You don’t know if they’re looking at you at all. And yet it’s comfortable to interact with them because the rules of social engagement already tell us how to deal with sunglasses.
HTC isn’t sharing any tech specs on these new headsets yet and declined to comment on any of my specific questions. All we know is that one headset has an integrated computer, and the other will operate with the processor in your phone or some other wearable computer. But I suspect that the lenses you see aren’t in any way integral to the headsets themselves. I suspect these lenses are a facade that lives over the black plastic, there only to make one important point: The wearer of this headset can see you, but they might not be looking at you right now.