In Conversation with Hugo Swart, Qualcomm

Qualcomm VP discusses its approach to extended reality

This article is the first in a two-part series about our recent discussion with Hugo Swart. In this piece, we look at Qualcomm’s role in supporting the market for extended reality.

I’m always on the lookout to learn more about the extended reality (XR) industry, and recently I managed to have some time with Hugo Swart, vice president and general manager of Qualcomm’s XR business. As the person overseeing the chipmaker’s innovation and investment in the technology, his view of the area and the future of XR is second to none, so I was keen to get his perspective on the dynamics at play, starting with recent device launches.

The first half of 2021 saw a flurry of new virtual and augmented reality (VR and AR) products unveiled, with standalone VR headsets such as the HTC Vive Focus 3 and the Pico Neo 3 launching in addition to exciting new AR devices like the Lenovo ThinkReality A3 and the fourth generation of Snapchat Spectacles. In my view, this has created a real sense of progress and momentum for XR, and raises the question: what’s creating so much interest in these new kinds of technology?

Hugo believes that the main driver is immersive, spatial applications, which Qualcomm is seeing great demand for. “As humans, we always want immersive experiences”, he says.

“We want experiences that are rich in multimedia, where we feel present, and where we feel as though the digital and the real world really seem as one. The interest and the demand for these types of technology aren’t new. But what is new is that technology is getting to a point where that device is small enough, capable enough and affordable enough to offer something amazing.”

This is certainly true in the consumer space, and we touch on the VR devices that are getting attention — most notably the Oculus Quest 2 — as well as exciting new uses pushing adoption of VR headsets, such as exercise. Hugo highlights Beat Saber and Supernatural as two titles that have been extremely important. It’s something that rang true in our most recent consumer VR survey.

In the enterprise market, however, deployments have been a blend of VR and AR, but interest has accelerated for both in recent years. “Every day it seems like there’s a news article about applications that you never thought people would be using in virtual reality,” Hugo observes.

“Five or six years ago, a lot of enterprise uses started to get incubated. It takes a few years to mature, and now we’re starting to see commercial applications implemented in volume. Enterprises are showing the return on investment from those trials and proof-of-concepts, and now the technology is getting to a point where it’s ready to scale.”

Long-term investment in XR is something that Qualcomm can speak well on. For more than a decade, the company has invested in spatial computing, dating back to its work on smartphones. But according to Hugo, its aim from the beginning was to move beyond smartphones, with Qualcomm’s long-term strategy focussed on building system-on-chip (SoC) solutions for XR to support the necessary technologies. “As an example, you need optimization for 360-degree videos,” he notes. “You use cameras more for computer vision and tracking, and we need more of these cameras, which are low-resolution and monochrome rather than RGB. So we needed to make optimizations in our camera, computer vision, GPU, display subsystems — essentially the whole SoC”.

This is where I believe Qualcomm’s decision some years ago to build a standalone reference design was game-changing. The use of its Snapdragon 820 and 835 platforms for XR devices like the original Oculus Quest was a transformative step. The plan allowed perception workloads and heavy multimedia workloads to sit in one standalone unit, as well as dealing with the problem of heat dissipation, which smartphone-based approaches like those of the Samsung Gear VR or Google Cardboard couldn’t address. The reference design was a catalyst for the growth of standalone headsets, spawning a range of devices for multiple locations and paving the way for the platforms of today.

The recent Snapdragon XR1 and XR2 chipsets are widely used in standalone and tethered devices, and Hugo sees them as a huge step forward, taking advantage of two core Qualcomm competencies — power and performance, and connectivity and processing. “For XR, you need very low power, high performance and high integration,” he explains. “That’s essentially what we built with mobile, and now we’re moving to the next level of that in XR”.

Although Qualcomm plays many parts in the XR industry, Hugo argues that its biggest achievement is its role in enabling the technology.

“I think one of the reasons we’ve enabled more than 45 XR devices is multiple reference designs, which allows us to support everyone from the smallest start-ups to the biggest players. There are different degrees of utilization of our reference design.”

He names Lynx as a start-up that Qualcomm has worked closely with, adding that it “speaks to our ability to not only enable the big companies, but to help the smaller guys to move up too”. This has been true since the first XR reference designs Qualcomm introduced, and the company remains a standout leader in this area.

It’s fascinating to see how the XR market has progressed, even just over the past few years since I’ve been actively researching it. Understanding the big decisions made in Silicon Valley is hugely important for trying to predict the future of a technology, so this glimpse at Qualcomm’s strategic approach to its journey so far is valuable. The move toward standalone XR devices marked a new chapter in the industry, but it’s fair to say that there’s plenty more to come.

The second part of this blog series will be published on 1 July, focussing on crucial questions facing the XR market as it looks to the future.