Cutting the Cord

It’s been very hard to avoid talk of virtual and augmented reality (VR and AR), smart glasses and the metaverse recently. Throughout the developer conference season, rumours have abounded about next-generation devices that may or may not launch from major consumer tech players; it’s a conversation that’s grabbed plenty of headlines.

Ultimately, recent keynotes have delivered little on this front. However, I’d argue that there’s been an important raft of updates from the semiconductor industry on what comes next for VR and AR. This is where the question of what devices we’ll see this year and next year — and how they’re connected — is being answered.

Recently, Qualcomm unveiled a new reference design for AR glasses that tether wirelessly to a compatible smartphone, doing away with the physical cabling that’s so far been standard on emerging designs such as the Nreal Light. The smartphone still bears the brunt of the heavy computing power needed to process AR — but, thanks to Qualcomm’s in-glasses FastConnect 6900 chip, an ultralow-latency connection means content can be smoothly exchanged. My colleague Ben took a look at the design, and reported that the physical aspect of the device is a good step forward from what we’ve seen before.

The decision to cut the cord and move to wireless smartphone tethering is part of the smart glasses journey that Qualcomm’s been advocating for at least two years now; I think it’s really exciting to see progress here. The journey toward ultrapowerful smart glasses that look no different from standard eyewear has always been framed as an incremental one which could take about a decade to complete.

Gradually solving the bigger problems, such as cutting cables, is therefore very positive news. There are undoubtedly some flaws — most obviously, the roughly 30-minute battery life on board the reference design — but through iterative design I expect we’ll keep seeing improvements.

Attention will of course turn to device-makers as we try to figure out when the reference design will be put to good use. My guess is that we could see some devices arriving at the end of this year (or early in 2023) as the competition to reach the masses with a pair of AR glasses heats up. This new reference design will be a wake-up call to any major smartphone manufacturer about the possibilities on the horizon for VR and AR.

Naturally, there’ll be people asking what the point of all this is when AR and the market surrounding it are at such a fledgling stage. This is very much a space in its infancy; it’s fair to say that the list of apps, games and experiences is pretty short right now. But there are signs of movement here, and the recent Augmented World Expo event in Santa Clara showed ongoing development throughout the VR and AR landscape.

At the expo, TikTok’s AR content group Effect House showed off its resources for building AR experiences, and Snap announced its Lensathon competition to encourage the development of new lenses. Qualcomm also had a role to play here; its Snapdragon Spaces Developer Platform is now globally available for developers to download. The company is also offering a dev kit in the shape of the Lenovo ThinkReality A3 glasses and a Motorola edge+ smartphone. Spaces has already seen plenty of interest from pioneering developers thanks to the $100 million Qualcomm pledged for its Snapdragon Metaverse Fund; I’m excited to see what content people start to build with the tools provided.

The dust is settling on another busy week in the tech industry, when some were left disappointed by the lack of news about future VR and AR devices. But there are plenty of signs of momentum continuing in the development of next-generation headsets and content to match them. We’ve cautioned for some time that massively powerful AR smart glasses won’t arrive overnight and will require a step-by-step approach. Although this may disappoint some, they should be pleased to see that those steps are being taken along a path to new devices and experiences.