Building Blocks for Next-Gen Extended Reality

Meta Connect, which took place last week, was yet another huge moment for the extended reality (XR) industry in a year that has already had several massive events and announcements packed into it. As I discussed in a blog immediately after the event, the Meta Quest 3 is a major development in headset design and appears to be easily the most complete all-round virtual and mixed reality package that consumers and businesses can get their hands on right now, offering an experience several orders of magnitude better than its predecessor, the Quest 2. Alongside this, the Ray-Ban Meta smart glasses are an intriguing new device and I see genuine promise in the integration of Meta’s chat bot with a wearable device.

Meta Connect reinforced the sense that 2023 might be looked back on as an inflection point in the XR market, where major device-makers fully committed to the category and where virtual, augmented, and mixed reality took a clear step toward the mainstream.

As ever, new devices tend to grab headlines, but I’m always keen to ensure that we shine a light on the technologies behind the scenes that enable the latest and greatest gadgets. These can be the pieces of news that get overlooked amid the glitz and glamour of a device launch, but which deserve attention as they can often tell us more about the future of an industry overall.

To this end, I’m taking a look at the Snapdragon XR2 Gen 2 platform from Qualcomm, which powers the Quest 3. This builds on the original XR2 chipset, which launched almost four years ago, and became the preferred choice for anyone looking to build a VR headset. It’s been hugely successful, but technology has clearly moved on in the intervening period, and it’s no surprise to see an update as Qualcomm looks to cement its leadership in this space.

Qualcomm’s Snapdragon XR2 Gen 2 chipset

The XR2 Gen 2 system-on-chip design is built on a 4 nm process node and brings several upgrades over its predecessor. Most obvious is a 2.5-times increase in GPU performance over the first generation, which will mean significantly better graphics inside the headset. Qualcomm states that XR2 Gen 2 has been optimized to support 3K-by-3K displays, which is higher than those found inside the Quest 3, showing that there’s room to grow for manufacturers wanting to make the most of this chipset.

The new design also boasts a 50% more efficient GPU performance, which should translate to better battery life and improved thermal performance. Managing the thermal characteristics of head-mounted units has been a critical challenge, particularly when building smart glasses, so progress here is extremely welcome.

Furthermore, there’s an eightfold improvement in the performance of artificial intelligence (AI) functions, which is extremely valuable in XR headsets given their need to track and understand diverse inputs including hand-tracking, eye-tracking, voice recognition and simultaneous localization and mapping. Support for more cameras (10, up from seven) further strengthens the XR2 Gen 2 in this regard.

Snapdragon is the bedrock of the Meta Quest 2 headset, which is by some distance the most commercially successful VR headset, so this ongoing collaboration between Meta and Qualcomm makes plenty of sense. But I’m intrigued by what comes next. Qualcomm usually enjoys industry-wide support for its designs, and it would be no surprise to see other leading headset-makers adopt its new chipset.

What may be even more telling is how many other device-makers yet to launch XR headsets decide that now is the time to get involved in the segment. There’s little doubt that the Apple Vision Pro will have encouraged many rival tech firms to reconsider the XR market, and I’d be surprised if we don’t see some new names entering the fray soon.

Qualcomm’s relationships in the premium Android smartphone market place it in good stead should any leading names decide to tackle the XR industry — and realistically, Snapdragon is the only serious game in town when it comes to building a headset (with the exception of Apple, which uses its own silicon); its years of leadership and expertise in virtual and augmented reality designs means that XR2 Gen 2 has essentially no competition in terms of winning designs.

In addition to XR2 Gen 2, Qualcomm also unveiled the AR1 Gen 1, which is being debuted in the Ray-Ban Meta smart glasses. This is a far more lightweight solution designed for the entry-level smart glasses market, ranging from those with no displays (like the new Ray-Ban design) to single or binocular displays, up to a resolution of 1,280 by 1,280 pixels per eye. Much like the AR2 Gen 1 design, which landed in 2022, there’s a heavy focus on building glasses to be used alongside a smartphone, and Qualcomm’s FastConnect 7800 makes an appearance here to support Wi-Fi and Bluetooth.

So far, much of the smart glasses segment has seen a mixture of approaches taken by different devices with varying specifications, but once again we’re seeing Qualcomm try to standardize an approach to empower device-makers. Between them, Snapdragon AR1 and AR2 offer enough scope for a range of new smart glasses to arrive in 2024 powered by Qualcomm solutions.

One final thing I want to draw attention to is the chipmaker’s partnership with Samsung. The Korean firm announced in February that it’s collaborating with Google and Qualcomm to build an XR headset, but all three companies have remained tight-lipped since then about what the device might look like or when it will arrive.

I’d argue that Samsung won’t want to offer something far below the capability of the Apple Vision Pro, but equally will want to pitch itself as more accessible than this ultrapremium rival. Snapdragon XR2 Gen 2 goes a long way toward matching the features of the Vision Pro, but is ultimately in use in more-affordable devices — the Quest 3 is $499 compared with $3,499 for Apple’s offering. This suggests Qualcomm’s new chipset may be the missing piece of the puzzle. Or perhaps there’s some higher-performing silicon waiting in the wings.

Of course, it makes sense to focus on the news we know for sure — Qualcomm and Meta have continued their long-standing partnership, with the latest chipset being used in devices that will almost certainly become market-leading. Given other areas of shared focus — such as AI, which both firms have spoken extensively about in recent times — this feels like a partnership with huge potential, which is great news for the rapidly developing XR market. As more names join the party, Snapdragon is looking well-positioned to offer the building blocks for devices of the future.