Qualcomm Paves the Way for AR Glasses

One step closer to truly smart glasses

The journey toward true augmented reality (AR) glasses is one of the most fascinating areas of tech for me. By “true” AR, I’m referring to devices that look no different from normal eyewear, yet offer impressive computing capabilities by overlaying contextual intelligence over your real-world view. It’s an area of great promise, and one where I’m always on the lookout for hints about how the tech may develop in the future.

Recently, one voice that has become particularly vocal in advocating AR smartglasses belongs to Cristiano Amon, CEO of Qualcomm. It’s notable that although the company is a leader in the technologies powering today’s devices, like smartphones, Mr Amon is keen to push the boundaries. He’s been public in his confidence that extended reality (XR) will be a hugely disruptive platform, changing the entire tech landscape, and has predicted that smart glasses will eventually replace our smartphones altogether. In fact, this was a key theme in his keynote presentation at the IAA Mobility 2021 show.

Now, it’s worth noting that there are many technologies that must advance to meet the demands of a compact, capable AR device. For example, componentry is critical — fitting batteries and computing units into a standard pair of glasses is no mean feat, with many engineering problems still needing a solution.

Another vital area of consideration for design decisions is wireless technologies, and one in particular — 5G. The potential overlap between 5G and XR is something I’ve spoken about before, and I believe that Qualcomm’s leadership position in both of these technologies places the company in a uniquely strong position in the market. That’s why Mr Amon’s vision of the future is worth listening to.

Right now, we’re seeing 5G networks deliver a tidal wave of change in the way we think about computing, thanks to their high-capacity and low-latency connections. They unlock the promise of intelligent edge computing, meaning that devices can offload more local processing to the cloud. In short, it’s a match made in heaven for wearable tech like smart glasses, which have to be small and compact.

Alongside this, Qualcomm has placed a large bet on XR. The company’s been invaluable in developing and growing the ecosystem, supporting new players in this emerging space, and its hardware is of critical importance to the market. The Snapdragon XR2 chipset is the foundation for the Oculus Quest 2, which has become the poster child of virtual reality (VR) devices; the success of the Quest 2 is a major factor in CCS Insight’s forecast that 9.9 million VR devices will ship in 2021, rising to over 50 million units in 2025.

And looking forward, there’s no doubt that smart glasses are a central focus for Qualcomm. Mr Amon has already stated that “…the next thing that is coming is AR… is going to solve the next frontier, that is the limitation of the screen size of your smartphone. We are just at the beginning of AR getting to scale. There are a lot of Qualcomm-sized problems to solve, but we already see the light at the end of the tunnel… We’re going to experience a big AR revolution”.

What’s notable for me here is the acknowledgement of “Qualcomm-sized problems”. There’s no doubt that the transition to next-generation AR devices will take time and considerable investment, but Mr Amon is evidently prepared to lead on this journey and use Qualcomm’s expertise and scale to support future growth. In fact, he’s already suggested that AR smart glasses may be available as soon as 2022, stating that “we are convinced that once you have the 5G network built, the phone is going to evolve to allow the element of augmented reality glasses”.

I’d urge some caution here, as any AR smart glasses that we see in 2022 will still be some way away from the fabled land of normal-looking eyewear. Recent standalone AR devices like Snap’s fourth-generation Spectacles are an important step in the journey, but haven’t yet solved problems such as battery life. Ray-Ban’s recent Stories, which are powered by an optimized Snapdragon platform, are the best-looking smart glasses yet, and weigh only 5 g more than normal sunglasses (the same weight as a teaspoon of salt) — but they don’t offer AR.

For the next year or two, I expect we’ll see a continuation of AR devices tethered to smartphones or PCs, like the Nreal Light or Lenovo ThinkReality A3. Given that smartphones are so crucial to everyday life, they will play an essential role over the next few years as a powerful hub for AR glasses, providing a bridge to the cloud and managing devices’ computing needs. Eventually, the cabled connection will give way to wireless tethering, and then standalone devices. This is reflected in CCS Insight’s forecast for AR; although we expect about 800,000 AR devices to ship this year, we’re forecasting rapid growth and shipments of over 18 million units in 2025.

In early use, AR has been particularly powerful in enterprise settings, but we’re expecting to see growth in consumer applications such as social experiences and location-based entertainment and experiences such as AR-enhanced sports matches. And it’s an idea that’s beginning to resonate with the public; our recent Connected Consumer Radar report found that almost 40% of people in advanced markets had heard of AR smart glasses, and our survey of attitudes to VR found that two-thirds of VR headset owners would like to buy smart glasses within the next three years.

It’s long been the case that the semiconductor space provides a crystal ball for the tech landscape, so it’s well worth listening to the voices of industry leaders like Cristiano Amon. I think the next few years will see extraordinary progress in XR, with AR smart glasses in particular heating up in development. As wireless technologies, components and software all progress, we’ll see radically improved AR devices in slimmer, sleeker forms. Realistically, I’d bet that the ultimate “true” smart glasses may still be a few years away, but the building blocks are in place for the AR revolution.