Qualcomm chips, like the Snapdragon 835 and 845, to name a couple, have done exceedingly well across platforms, including smartphones, laptops and standalone AR and VR headsets over the past few years.
However, it was about time the company introduced a dedicated augmented and virtual reality processor and left those 835s and 845s to the smartphones and laptops.
Well, that’s exactly what Qualcomm did when it unveiled the brand new AR|VR-dedicated Snapdragon XR1 chipset at a Silicon Valley press event on Tuesday (May 29), effectively doing away with AR and VR’s dependency on repurposed chips.
Qualcomm has integrated a number of features on the XR1 which are exclusively focused on Extended Reality of XR – the company’s combined reference to augmented and virtual reality.
“XR1 integrates Qualcomm Technologies’ heterogeneous computer architecture, including the ARM-based multi-core Central Processing Unit (CPU), vector processor, Graphics Processing Unit (GPU) and Qualcomm AI Engine. Other key features include an advanced XR software service layer, machine learning, the Snapdragon XR Software Development Kit (SDK) and Qualcomm Technologies connectivity and security technologies.” (Qualcomm)
Qualcomm’s first-ever AR|VR-friendly chipset is expected to make it relatively more cost-effective for manufacturers to develop entry-level augmented and virtual reality devices.
As Qualcomm has already partnered with the likes of HTC Vive, Meta, Pico, and Vuzix and with more to join the bandwagon in the coming months, we could well see the first lot of these gadgets hit the market by the end of 2018, or latest, by early 2019.
As exciting as the thought of having a dedicated AR|VR processor is, the fact remains that the XR1 is a pretty basic chip, good for videos and similar experiences but not good enough for hard-core gaming, for now, at least.
By Qualcomm’s own admission, a repurposed Snapdragon 845 is still a better option for high-intensity augmented and virtual reality experiences.
So, while the versatile Snapdragon 845 is driving manufacturers to make standalone headsets that can match the performance capabilities of computer-tethered AR|VR systems, the XR1 is here to encourage the introduction of more and more low-priced devices in the AR|VR market.
Equipped with basic controllers, instead of hand-tracking ones, Snapdragon XR1 devices are going to be relatively low-priced, designed to support “lean back and 360 viewing” of videos and not for “room scale tracking,” says Qualcomm.
The XR1 has the ability to support three degrees of freedom like tracking the yaw, pitch, and roll of a user’s head movements, but it will not be able to do it in a 3D setting, for which you will still need a Snapdragon 845-powered headset that will support six degrees of freedom.
That said, the Snapdragon XR1 processor will have the ability to support 4K video at 60 frames per second, with support for Qualcomm’s audio data reduction technology, such as aptX – a family of proprietary audio codec compression algorithms currently owned by Qualcomm.
In an email response to some questions raised by TechCrunch, head of Qualcomm XR, Hiren Bhinde said that the Snapdragon XR1 “will handle fewer workloads as opposed to the 845 for similar power and thermal benchmarks.”
He did, however, mention that “[t]here are also some AR customers who don’t need the high graphics or memory bandwidth supported in 845 for their devices, which is what makes the XR1 a perfect fit for them.”
In other words, Snapdragon XR1-powered headsets supporting simple heads-up display and a voice assistant, like the ones that Qualcomm’s XR1 partner Vuzix has been showing off, will be way different from the sophisticated mixed reality devices that Microsoft and Magic Leap are pursuing.