If there’s one aspect of technology that breaks the effect of immersion, it’s all the cables and wires that need to be plugged in for our devices to function. Practically speaking, that’s probably one of the reasons our smartphones are so core to our computing experiences these days, and mobile devices now make up well over 60% of web traffic in the US. Further, when it comes to immersive computing-driven experiences, there’s nothing quite as impressive as the burgeoning field of AR (Augmented Reality) or VR (Virtual Reality), though that immersion can be equally disrupted by legacy cabling that keeps humans tethered to devices without complete freedom to move about in their environment. In fact, it could be said that the holy grail of AR and VR experiences begins with high speed, high resolution wireless glasses (AR) or goggles (VR). Until we can get rid of the wires, we’ll never be free in our new digital constructs and will always be a slave to the machine. However, Qualcomm gave me a new perspective on freedom last week at its 5G Summit in San Diego, with its new Wireless AR Smart Viewer reference design. And just like the many vistas in that sunny California town, the view was quite nice.
Qualcomm Wireless AR Smart Viewer Tech Helps The Glasses Get Out Of The Way Of The Experience
It’s one thing to look at a computer or smartphone screen in a traditional use case, but when you start strapping devices onto human heads, you better make things comfortable and heck, eventually even fashionable. While I wouldn’t call Qualcomm’s new Wireless AR Smart Viewer glasses a fashion statement exactly, the Goertek-developed design is 40 percent thinner than Qualcomm’s previous generation wired design, and they sit quite comfortably on your face without feeling awkward or unbalanced. Since they’re AR glasses, they’re designed to overlay a digital experience over the area around you, allowing you to be present in your existing environment, along with co-workers, friends or family. Qualcomm’s partner SeeYa is the manufacturer of the dual micro-OLED binocular displays that deliver a 1920×1080 image resolution per eye at up to 90Hz refresh rate with no-motion-blur technology. These eyeglass-mounted displays and the images rendered in them left me with zero eye fatigue when I personally took them for a test drive recently at an event.
Finally, dual monochrome cameras and one RGB camera on board the glasses deliver 6DoF (six degrees of freedom) head, hand and eye tracking with gesture recognition, which all comes together to complete the experience, along with all the tools you need to interact with your new, now augmented environment. Also on board is a 67 wHr battery that Qualcomm notes currently offers about a 30 minute uptime before needing a charge. Of course, all this sexy external hardware needs powerful, but power-efficient, processing engines on board to handle the rendering, positional and interaction workloads, and that’s where Qualcomm’s silicon technologies come into play.
Qualcomm Snapdragon XR2 And FastConnect 6900 Help Split The Workload And Minimize Latency
As you might imagine, what helps drive the experience here is a low latency wireless connection to a Snapdragon-powered Android smartphone. The phone also handles some of the processing workload for the experience, like the XR application (Extended Reality – a term used to describe real and virtual combined environments), encoding and much of the rendering workload. On board the glasses themselves is the very low power Qualcomm Snapdragon XR2 Gen 1 platform that handles the video delivery, head, eye and hand tracking and other functions, like decoding the compressed rendered image frames from the phone that does much of heavy lifting for the graphics engine. Qualcomm representatives noted that Snapdragon XR2 Gen 1 is “a purpose-built platform for XR, built on the foundation of Snapdragon 865, featuring XR enablement focused on meeting the needs of a premium XR experience.” In addition, this “split-processing” approach allows the viewer to also utilize the 5G connectivity of the phone, which can be connected to any number of AR applications in the cloud, essentially tapping you into what is currently an emerging metaverse.
How these two devices communicate, however, is also a bit of Qualcomm special sauce called FastConnect 6900. Utilizing its FastConnect XR Software Suite, Qualcomm’s FastConnect 6900 Wi-Fi 6/6E and Bluetooth chipset technology provide a high speed, low latency connection over 5 and 6GHz bands. FastConnect technology resides in both the AR Smart Viewer reference design and in the smartphone, enabling sub-3ms (millisecond) latency between the phone and the glasses. This is a critical enabling technology, because wirelessly shipping all those bits to dual 1080p displays, along with tracking and positional information back to the phone takes a fair amount of bandwidth, and it’s one of the toughest parts of the application to solve. Qualcomm representatives noted that its Wireless AR Smart Viewer design can work with other Wi-Fi solutions as well, but pairing it with FastConnect enables the best experience. Someday wireless technologies will evolve such that dual 4K resolution displays at 90Hz or above may be a reality in a pair of glasses like this, but that’s going to take a ton of ultra-low latency wireless bandwidth (FastConnect 7800 Wi-Fi 7?) and the technology is still evolving.
Key Take-Aways And My Qualcomm AR Experience
So, how did all this technology come together in my demo you see at the top of the story here? In a word, I’d say it was all very impressive. I was able to test out a number of scenarios, from watching a personal chef in a kitchen instructing me on how to prepare a meal, to joining someone on a couch for a video game session. These images were overlayed in the conference room environment I was in, and so — unlike VR goggles that take you completely out of your existing environment — I was able to see through these glasses as well, which also kept me oriented and present in the area I was in. Motion fatigue was non-existent for me and the image rendering itself was a mix of high fidelity, near photorealistic objects like you might see in a video game, to basic polygon constructs for some of the characters. Qualcomm representatives noted that the demo was simply a showcase, and the developers hadn’t completely finished creating the characters and environments yet. However, I wasn’t just watching static images on the displays, I could walk and move among these images and they’d seamlessly pan and zoom as my head and body moved around in my new AR-enhanced environment. It was all pretty cool stuff.
Regardless, Qualcomm’s Wireless AR Smart Viewer demo allowed me to see what stepping into a metaverse-like application might be like, as well the potential applications and use cases it could serve. Here the market opportunity is vast, from industrial and enterprise applications where these viewers could be utilized for instructional purposes, to education, retail, sporting events and more. Imagine sitting at a live NFL game with your cool AR shades on, and when your favorite QB connects with your favorite receiver for a touchdown, you can instantly “stat that” with information on the players and the play itself, live and in real-time. The applications for augmented reality are quite vast, and it was fun to be able to experience just a taste of a few of them myself, to see where we’re headed as the infancy of the metaverse continues to evolve.
Qualcomm notes its Wireless AR Smart Viewer Refence Design is now “available for select partners with wider availability in the coming months.” I’m looking forward to seeing these new windows to the world in the market this year, along with what kinds of new experiences they’ll enable.