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Qualcomm’s XR devices (virtual, augmented reality, or mixed reality) have a lot of traction. More than 60 XR products have used its chips to date. That’s up from 30 devices back in CES 2020.
The man in charge of that effort is Hugo Swart, vice president and general manager of Qualcomm’s XR efforts. I caught up with Swart at CES 2023 to talk about the future of XR and the devices that we’ll see coming out in the new generation of products.
While Qualcomm isn’t making the headsets, the Snapdragon family of processors that it designs are key to the power and processing efficiency of the devices. The company’s technology advances lead to lighter, more efficient XR headsets and longer battery life. And one of these days, we’ll gets some AR glasses that look just like a pair of ordinary sunglasses or prescription lenses.
What’s coming down the road? Snapdragon Spaces devices and Wi-Fi 7 better connectivity, better video passthrough and hopefully a set standard and devices that will facilitate an open metaverse. Swart spoke with me about these subjects at the recent CES 2023 technology trade show in Las Vegas.
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Here’s an edited transcript of our interview.
VentureBeat – I was just around that corner looking at the HTC headset. It looks great.
Hugo Swart: It’s a very nice piece of hardware. We’re still supporting a lot of the software things, but I really like it too. We’re starting to see more and more devices. The Lenovo VRX, I’m not sure if you’ve tried that. They also use pancake lenses. It’s targeted at enterprises.
It’s what we’ve been seeing for the longest time. If you’re doing a VR headset, there’s nothing better than the XR2. It’s still a very popular platform. Overall, believe it or not, we’ve already launched more than 60 devices. There are devices not only from tier-one firms, but also from startups. We can scale our support to all of these companies in a smart way.
VentureBeat – Do you remember a time when we had a generation 1.0 and then one generation 2.0?
Swart: We did the XR2+. The main difference was in the packaging. It was just a new package. The original XR2 Gen 1 has a package that helps with form factor. However, on heat dissipation it concentrates heat in one place. We added the memory to XR2+. It aids in heat dissipation. That’s the kind of change we call a Plus or a Pro. When it comes to the generations, it’s really a new processor as a whole.
We announced the AR2 in November last year as an example. I don’t think we’ve talked about that. The XR product line is for products that can be VR/MR/AR. As we began to focus on slimmer, more compact glasses, we realized that something was missing. That’s why we created a new platform that is only for AR. That’s why we call it the AR platform. AR2 is an entirely new AR architecture that allows us to use less than one watt of power. How can you achieve this? If you want to create rich multimedia, graphics and all that stuff, then you will need more power. You can still distribute the processing among the glasses and another device, such as a computer.
Split rendering was a topic we were discussing way back in the day. I think it was a GDC. It’s kind of the same thing, the same concept, where you do perception – hand tracking, head tracking, and some of those perception features – in the headset, and then send those poses to the host compute unit. The applications are actually being run by the host computing unit. The host compute unit encodes the application and sends it back. Next, you can project and use all of those display processing features within the headset.
That’s why it’s completely different. It’s ground-breaking. It’s going to enable the small form factor VR glasses because of this architecture that eliminates, or at least decreases a lot, the power consumption. The power that drives size is the power. It’s heat dissipation. You can’t put a fan in there. Any type of thermal solution can lead to increased size. To reduce size, you must also reduce power. Reduce the size of your glasses, which will reduce your need for power. That’s the compromise we found to enable these small form factor glasses.
Wireless is also possible. It’s a wireless distributed process. We’re using Wi-Fi 7. It doesn’t necessarily need Wi-Fi 7, but of course with Wi-Fi 7 you have the best latency and techniques to work in more challenging scenarios. Wi-Fi 7 is connected to your glasses via your phone or computer.
VentureBeat – What perspective does one have when someone looks at a product like the Meta Quest Pro Excellent mixed reality, excellent wireless, and all the other benefits. Text can be read now. They want it for $400.
Swart: There has been a steady shift towards lower prices. I can’t say the exact price point because that involves a lot of things around the business model and so forth. You can see that HTC’s price point is lower than the Quest Pro. The VRX, I’m not sure if they’ve talked about pricing or not. Pico 4’s price is considerably lower. I don’t recall the number off the top of my head. But it doesn’t have all the features. That’s why I think it’s healthy to see all these devices coming. It is possible to create products with different price points and features that target different market segments and use cases. This helps to move the industry forward.
VentureBeat: Keeping everyone’s expectations in line, that’s one thing that’s always hurt this industry in some ways.
Swart: I agree. If you look into video passthrough, that’s an amazing functionality. This is not the first version people are putting out on the market. There’s still a lot of optimization that can be done, both on the display front and even on how you do processing, how we do the silicon. It can be optimized to support video passthrough functionality. I agree. “Expectation” is a keyword here. Even the hype and the buzz around the metaverse–it was great to have that, but then people have a certain expectation. “It’s here now. I can live in a virtual world!” Well, wait. It’s one step at a time.
That’s what I like about what we’re seeing in the XR industry or metaverse industry. From 2015, if you look back at 2015 and compare to where we are now, that’s quite a lot of progress. We have the stand-alone category and all the functionality that’s coming to stand-alones. The stand-alone category can also be paired with compute units such as PCs. There’s a lot of progress we’ve made over the last few years.
VentureBeat: What do you think of the metaverse?
Swart: This is my opinion. The metaverse is not necessarily a virtual world. It’s a combination of digital and physical worlds. The metaverse I prefer to think of as spatial computing. In that sense, we’re just early in the metaverse experiences we have. We’re early in spatial computing.
It was the same in 2000 when we spoke about mobile internet. That’s when I started my career. I was asked, “What’s the killer use case for the mobile internet?” “Well, you’ll watch videos. You’ll have video calls. You’ll have navigation.” It’s not that we didn’t know the use case. It’s just that it wasn’t ready for everyone. Displays that were the right form factor were required. It required connectivity.
That’s what we see now with the metaverse and spatial computing. You have all these vectors of improvement, whether it’s the processor or connectivity or displays or the ecosystem. Snapdragon Spaces is now available, which is an API set following OpenXR. Developers can now create content easily and have it available on all devices. It’s not an app store. It’s really just perception features. How can developers access these perception features? This becomes a horizontal solution. That’s what we’re aiming for with Snapdragon Spaces.
VentureBeat: I don’t know if the healthiest thing I see in the ecosystem–I see all the creators, all the people who are using Nvidia Omniverse to create enterprise applications. There are all these unexpected things that big developers aren’t necessarily all doing. It’s the same on the creator side. Beat Saber is one example. It seems like this is one of the most encouraging.
Swart: Our collaboration with Adobe was another topic we discussed when we launched AR2 in November. These guys do amazing work. They’re creating tools for 3D content, 3D assets, for non-coders. That’s the kind of thing we need. Anyone can make content. Regular people need tools to create content. You need tools that allow you to create whatever way you want.
We’re seeing a lot of these things come together. I’m not sure if you played with ShapesXR, but that’s a very nice application. That’s also creation-related, 3D creation. There’s good progress on that front.
VentureBeat – What about USD and what it might lead to in terms of metaverse standards.
Swart: We’re supporting and working toward USD, but also glTF. It’s not like we’re religious about one or the other. These standards and these formats are gaining popularity. Optimizing the client side is important. Coincidentally, that’s also what we talked about at our Snapdragon Summit with Adobe. With Adobe we’re looking at USD and how to make it optimized for mobile. We mean smartphones, headsets and tablets.
VentureBeat: Nvidia is showing very interesting activity, especially with the Omniverse support and work on USD. However, it seems like some of the guys are too quiet. Intel is not quiet. They have supported it, but then AMD–more companies could be as enthusiastic as some of the leaders are.
Swart: It’s not that we don’t support it. We’re just focusing more of our energy on the bigger challenges. I’m not saying that’s not a challenge. There are many challenges that we can overcome to make a greater impact. Developers have access to all the power, size, and functionality they need. That’s where we’re concentrating. Also, it’s important to have these standards and things to help eliminate or diminish fragmentation.
VentureBeat: Do you feel like we’re on a yearly cadence now for new generations?
Swart: It’s not yet. No. If you’re looking at the XR, our VR product line, with XR2 Gen 1 we had the Pro. I’m going to keep a little suspense as far as Gen 2. But there’s a lot that can be improved around a given platform, meaning the processor. Once you create a processor, the software, the displays, the things that go around it–creating a new chip every year, first, that doesn’t make economic sense yet. Second, it’s disruptive. These things can take some time to optimize for a particular platform. By the time you’ve optimized, if you suddenly need to move to the next one? You’re always trying to play catch-up.
The PC business and smartphone business are both mature markets. But for XR it’s better to concentrate effort in the industry on a given platform. There’s a right time. Although I believe the interval will decrease, a yearly cadence of 1.2 seconds is still too fast.
VentureBeat: Do you think it’s worrisome that Moore’s Law is slowing down at a time when we’re all supposed to be heavily investing in the metaverse?
Swart: Both yes and no. The nice thing about engineers is that if you give them a problem, they’ll find a way around it. AR2 is one example. I don’t have the same kind of gains I get on the process node. How can I solve this problem. Oh, it’s by distributing the processing. Ideally, of course I’d like to have it all in one place. I’d like to have it with 5G. I’d like to have everything, and maybe I’d have it if Moore’s Law continued at the same pace. It is essential that we are more creative and look for ways to work around this limitation.
Yes, it’s concerning. We need to work together to create the experiences everyone wants, without counting on process node advantages.
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