Reality Check

Establishing a VR and AR platform for the future

Virtual reality and augmented reality, or extended reality (XR) as they’re often collectively labelled, have been touted as technologies that will transform computing, content, education and industry by delivering new levels of immersion and collaboration. The promise of virtual reality is well understood and the overlay of digital with the real world stands to become hugely disruptive, but the actual reality is that we’re not there yet.

Facebook’s 2019 F8 conference was a clear illustration of the challenge: there’s a mismatch between the vision for the technology and its current status. Facebook has remained steadfast in its commitment to Oculus as the future computing platform and sees it becoming central to the fabric of daily life. However, demand for Oculus headsets is still heavily pushed by gaming.

This isn’t to say that gaming is the only driver of demand, but XR traction more broadly is coming from opposite ends of the spectrum: enterprise and gaming. When the middle ground begins to embrace XR is when the technology truly starts to take on the characteristics of a “platform” catering to billions of users. However, this takes time.

I hear complaints that XR has overpromised and underdelivered. But new technologies rarely have immediate, profound impact — there’s a gestation period. XR needs the maturity of several elements: software, silicon, hardware, content, APIs, developers… the list is enormous. The ecosystem is complex, but its development is a process and central to its ultimate success.

Autonomous vehicles are a comparable example here. Realizing their promise requires the fusion of multiple hardware and software elements, which need to be hardened through miles of testing and packaged into a platform that can scale and fulfill mass-market demand. This takes time and investment. Moreover, autonomy will arrive in incremental phases with increasing levels of sophistication.

This is exactly what we’re seeing with XR. The market has gone from unwieldy, bulky headsets that need a physical tether to a PC, to compact and increasingly powerful all-in-one designs. Although XR hasn’t enjoyed the explosive demand that some expected, the market is witnessing steady gradual improvement in hardware, software, content and the overall experience.

Qualcomm’s launch last week of the Snapdragon Smart Viewer reference design is further evidence of this. It builds on its Snapdragon XR1 chipset platform and previous reference designs, but delivers a richer experience through the option to tether to a host device, be it a PC or a smartphone. This additional processing power enables features such as controllers with six degrees of freedom and eye tracking. Moreover, it’s packaged in a way that’s designed to scale by lowering cost, encouraging development and accelerating time to market.

The move builds on recent progress with a string of Snapdragon-based devices including HTC Vive Focus products, Lenovo Mirage Solo, Microsoft HoloLens 2, Oculus Quest and Google Glass Enterprise Edition 2. These devices are indicative of growing diversity, richer experiences and increasing maturity in the XR ecosystem. Moreover, they confirm that the future of virtual and augmented reality is in mobile designs.

Momentum is shifting to products that can operate as a standalone device, with the option to connect to another device for additional horsepower. This is an important transition given that 5G and mobile edge computing stand to take the same concept and supercharge it. The introduction of high-throughput, low-latency 5G connections and cloud computing at the network edge will allow XR devices to wirelessly access the potency of the data centre. Although this will take time, it could be a crucial enabler of more-compact, yet more-powerful device designs.

Progress hinges on iteration and investment to deliver success. This doesn’t happen in isolation nor without time and dedication. Given the strides the industry has made in recent years and the opportunities ahead, it’s time to be optimistic about XR.

This article was first published by FierceWireless on 3 June 2019.