How Qualcomm Designs Chips for the Mobile VR Revolution

Believing mobile virtual reality is the next revolution, Qualcomm is positioning itself to be the go-to chipmaker behind mobile VR, AR, and MR experiences.
The Snapdragon 845 incorporates SLAM technology to permit room-scale 6DoF tracking, allowing users to move around large spaces in XR. (Image source: Qualcomm)

“Just a few years ago, when you mentioned mobile VR, people thought about Google Cardboard, but [mobile VR] has evolved,” said Hugo Swart, Head of the XR (VR and AR) Business Group at Qualcomm. During a keynote at the recent VRLA conference in Los Angeles, Swart spoke about Qualcomm's strategy for “extended reality” (XR), the blanket term that encompasses virtual reality (VR), augmented reality (AR), and mixed reality (MR), and a future of sleeker devices, capable of delivering XR experiences that will be imperceptible to users. “AR and VR will merge,” he said. “It's a device you'll wear all day...”

But Swart said that such a device is still a ways off. Right now, there's not even a smartphone equivalent to VR. “VR will still be in its flip phone stage by 2020,” he said.

But Qualcomm believes VR will have the same societal and cultural impact that the smartphone has had. The chipmaker—best known as a supplier of processors for the same smartphones that have changed the way we all work, play, and communicate—has been looking at creating chips and other hardware optimized for XR for some time now.

The Road to More Immersion

“Immersion is key for consumer value,” Swart said. “Consumers need to have the connectivity as if the experience is real... If you try to visualize immersion, the next few years, most of us will think about [the movie] Ready Player One, but it's not going to take that long. It won't be 2045 before we see that.”

In 2016, Qualcomm released a reference platform for a VR head-mounted display (HMD) based on its Snapdragon 820 processor. At a time when VR was mainly a tethered experience full of wires and external sensors, the company was looking at supplying a processor for an all-in-one mobile HMD.

Hugo Swart, Head of the XR (VR and AR) Business Group at Qualcomm, speaks to an audience at VRLA. (Image source: Design News)

But the Snapdragon 820 only met what Swart called the “minimum requirements for immersion.” That is, it only offered three degree-of-freedom (3DoF) head tracking. Users can move their heads to look around a virtual environment, but the headset won't track their body position. The experience is somewhat immersive, but more akin to being strapped to a chair bolted to the floor.

The following year, at CES 2017, Qualcomm debuted the second generation of its chip: the Snapdragon 835. Using a 10-nanometer manufacturing process for the first time, Qualcomm developed a chip that was 35 percent smaller and consumed 25 percent less power than previous designs. More importantly, the 835 offered the next level of immersion: six degrees of freedom (6DoF). Now, users could both look and walk around a virtual environment.

Qualcomm's bet paid off and the Snapdragon 835 has become the processor behind the latest series of mobile VR headsets hitting the market. Headsets including the Oculus Go, Lenovo Mirage, Pico Neo, and the upcoming HTC Vive Focus all have the 835 under the hood. All of these headsets are offering consumer and enterprise users a mobile, all-in-one, 6DoF VR experience with no need for tethered wires, an external PC, or external sensors.

Enter The Snapdragon 845

Earlier this year, at the 2018 Game Developer's Conference (GDC), Qualcomm announced a new chip and corresponding VR development kit: the Snapdragon 845. The goal is to go one step beyond the 835, offering features such as room-scale 6DoF tracking (letting users move around large spaces, like factory floors and warehouses) and enabling hand tracking by allowing integration of technologies such as the Leap Motion controller.

Comments (0)

Please log in or to post comments.
  • Oldest First
  • Newest First
Loading Comments...