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12 December 2019

Qualcomm’s XR2 smartly pushes to mixed realities

Qualcomm has launched the first 5G-supported extended reality (XR) chipset – the Snapdragon XR2 Platform – which is a huge upgrade spec-wise from the XR1. While the first products released using the chipset will likely be incredibly expensive, Qualcomm seems to be pushing consumer XR where it needs to go to blossom.

By being 5G-enabled, the XR2 pushes the entire industry in the right direction. Mass development and adoption of XR technologies hangs on the roll out of 5G and network operators building infrastructure which aids the technology.

XR  is the umbrella term for Augmented Reality (AR), Virtual Reality (VR), and Mixed Reality (MR). While AR adds to the user’s surroundings (think Pokémon Go or camera filters), VR completely detaches the user from them. MR is the newest branch of XR, which incorporates elements of both, allowing headset products which reflect and alter the outside world.

Faultline has always felt that MR is the only form of VR that is ripe for rapid commercial adoption. It means users can use the technology in a much less inhibited fashion, allowing it to infiltrate ever-more areas of daily life instead of having to emerge themselves entirely into a virtual universe, which can only really work in a single room with soft furnishings so as to avoid injury.

Qualcomm’s newest offering boasts a spec better suited to MR. Five OEMs are committed to releasing products running the XR2, but it seems we are still far from getting a hint of what these will look like, let alone the price range. Typically, such devices follow the chip by 9 months to a year.

The wider XR industry seems to be stuck in a state of deep-seated unrest and perpetual underperformance, with multiple products and projects crumbling in recent months. Qualcomm’s offering may go some way to salvaging this by latching onto the two most promising aspects of the sector – 5G compatibility and MR use cases.

The ‘platform’ consists of the SoC, reference design, and software. Much like the XR1, the chipset is purposebuilt for XR, designed on the foundations of Snapdragon 865.

It seems all features have been scaled up from the XR1, boasting double the CPU and GPU performance. This allows for higher resolution graphics rendering and double the pixel rate. The chipset supports four times as much video bandwidth, six times higher resolution, while AI processing has increased eleven fold. Visual quality is 3K x 3K pixels per eye, running at up to of 90 frames per second.

XR2 supports XR by offering seven concurrent cameras operating from a headset. These, along with infrared LEDs, can track the face, head and hand movements of users, with no other sensors or gloves required. XR2 also claims to be the first platform to enable low latency camera pass-through, enabling what Qualcomm calls “true MR”. We assume that if you strap a phone to your head with this chip in, to watch a virtual universe, you can see the rest of the world through the phone camera – which may save lives.

The cameras also enable computer vision processing, essentially relating what the user sees to their external setting. One example is imitating external natural light sources within the XR. The press release boasts other visual features such as “foveated rendering with eye tracking” and “enhanced variable rate shading”. These can render quickly while keeping power consumption low.

Qualcomm’s Hexagon digital signal processor is integrated, providing constant support to hardware-accelerated features such as voice activation and context detection – which allows the device to remain switched on to events occurring outside XR.

Expect apps where someone thinks he is a marine, in a shoot’em up, walking down the street either with his phone on his eyes or a pair of glasses, seeing imaginary monsters to shoot, but at the same time able to stop at the traffic lights, and nod hello you to.

Qualcomm has said it will release a reference design early next year, not for consumers but for product development. The glasses pictured on the press release (as shown below) are purely a concept of the type of devices the Snapdragon XR2 Platform could power. Any design decision is entirely up to the relevant OEMs. We’re sure this will stimulate more rivals to Magic Leap and Hololens, but at the same time, there will be a low-end of the market with no add-ons.

Qualcomm has not given any indication of retail price, as of writing arguing that this too is entirely up to the OEMs. Few MR headsets have been rolled out to market, so it is hard to predict the price range. If this is the first chip that goes to volume, then the complexity of the software that drives it is likely to dictate price.

A look at the roll out of XR1 across products can give some indication of where we are heading. For instance, Google’s Glass Enterprise 2 headset incorporated the XR1 chipset to boost its processing power and AR capabilities. The Glass Enterprise 2 was adopted by big players in agriculture (AGCO), logistics (DHL) and health (Sutter Health), and retailed at the high-end, but not outrageous, price of $999.

As mentioned earlier, Qualcomm has five OEMs committed to commercializing devices powered by XR2, with some already in the prototype stage. One of these is Niantic, an AR gaming company which first gained fame for creating 3D map application Keyhole – later becoming Google Earth – and has more recently caught attention with huge mobile games such as Pokémon Go.

The reappearing elephant in the room however is that the XR industry is not in the best health. XR initiatives such as Occulus’ Gear VR headset, the BBC’s VR Hub and Nokia Ozo have crumbled in recent months. Even more damning are recent sales figures of Magic Leap One headset. Reports are flying around this week that the start-up only sold 6,000 headsets in its first 6 months, after aiming to sell 100,000 in its first year. This confirms the fears of many, including Faultline, who felt the $2,300 price tag was not palatable, even for developers.

Magic Leap has received a total of $2.6 billion in investment rounds over the past few years and had its critics from day one. However, whenever another investor takes a look behind the scenes at Magic Leap, they seem prepared to throw in another $500 million. Even so, it is a massive blow to the flagship MR market. There are rumors of mass lay-offs and a game of musical chairs at the board at Magic Leap as investors lose confidence.