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Qualcomm bets on VR, AR to succeed smartphones as the next compute platform

Qualcomm’s new accelerator program will ensure that its Snapdragon 835-based all-in-one VR headsets will commercially launch by Q2, 2017.

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Though the sales figures don’t quite reflect, virtual reality is far from dead. At MWC 2017, VR was a theme that was quite prevalent across different booths. The likes of ZTE let visitors experience Google’s Daydream View headsets, HTC showed off some new applications for its Vive, while Samsung had visitors lining up to experience its virtual amusement park. Virtual Reality, especially mobile VR, is clearly the future and one company is ensuring that it is at the forefront of developing technologies, and making them accessible to more people. With the launch of its latest chipset, Qualcomm is looking beyond just powering smartphones, and it is quite happy to talk about its Snapdragon 835 VR Developer Kit and partnership with hand tracking company Leap Motion.

The future of virtual reality goes way beyond slot-in mobile phone-based cheap headsets. Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 835 VR Developer Kit is essentially an all-in-one headset that doesn’t need you to slot in a mobile phone, and doesn’t have wires that need to be connected to a PC. The specs of this kit include a 2560×1440 pixels resolution display, 4GB of RAM, 64GB of flash memory, and spatial audio capabilities. There are cameras on the inside and outside. The ones on the inside track the movement of your pupils, and also enable pushing high-quality graphics inside a headset. The cameras on the outside allow for what is called ‘six degree of freedom’, which basically means one can experience moving around in the digital world without needing a specially assembled rig.

But what’s really interesting is Qualcomm’s partnership with hand tracking company Leap Motion, which is focused on boosting immersiveness in VR by introducing your real hands to grab virtual things. “If you have tried VR, and looked around, it is really interesting for the first couple of minutes. But then you can’t do anything,” Rachel Sibley, VP Product Marketing at Leap Motion says. “Controllers are useful, and they have uses in certain circumstances. The problem however, especially with mobile VR, is if you have a headset on, you need to figure out where that button is. It is also another thing you have to carry with you whenever you are mobile.”

“Guess what you have on you all the time? Hands. It is not only convenient, but it is also perfectly natural. We all know how to use our hands. So why not interact with our bare hands in the digital world as we do in the real world? It opens up access to more people than currently have access, and it creates a seamless experience that is deeply immersive. The moment that you see your hands in a virtual environment, you are there,” Sibley adds.

To do this, Leap Motion uses a combination of hardware and software. Where the company’s depth-sensing module with a 170-degree field of view is embedded into Qualcomm’s reference design, the software is what the company says is the ‘secret sauce’. This software can track the joints in the wrists, and determines exactly what’s happening with your hands. Together they let users pick up objects in the digital world and even throw them.

This Snapdragon 835 VR Developer Kit, as the name suggests, is meant for developers and Qualcomm won’t be selling it to consumers. Instead the company wants hardware manufacturers to use this reference design to build their versions of such all-in-one headsets. Qualcomm’s accelerator program is also streamlining this process for manufacturers by creating a standard set of requirements with pre-approved components.

The first VR headsets from Qualcomm’s accelerator program are expected to launch sometime in Q2 2017, for an unannounced price. With mobile VR clearly the future, it is not surprising to see Qualcomm’s emphasis on the segment. “Qualcomm sees VR and AR as the next compute platform. This is not something that will happen in a day, and it could take as much time as smartphones took from the first devices to what you have today. It was years of incremental improvements. So we are going to see that in VR and AR,” Hugo Swart, Senior Director, Product Management at Qualcomm says.

“At CES we announced the first device powered by Snapdragon 835, it was the ODG AR Glass. This is a pretty strong message from Qualcomm since Snapdragon 835 is our newest chip, and the first device we actually announced was actually not a phone. So you see the emphasis on this segment,” Swart added.

Disclaimer: BGR India attended MWC 2017 at the invitation of Qualcomm.

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