Spatial Computing Leaps to 4K

We may be just around the corner from CES, as I discussed in our blog just yesterday, but the tech world’s presses are already rolling into action thanks to some announcements taking place before the show has even begun. One development that has leapt out ahead of next week’s news flow comes from Qualcomm, which has unveiled its Snapdragon XR2+ Gen 2 chipset designed to power premium virtual and mixed reality headsets.

The chipset aims to push the boundaries of standalone spatial computing devices beyond anything Qualcomm has managed so far. The most obvious improvement over its prior efforts is in the support for high-resolution displays; Snapdragon XR2+ Gen 2 will power displays with a bleeding-edge resolution of up to 4.3K per eye, a significant step up on the 3K-per-eye support in the XR2 Gen 2. There’s also expanded support for 12 concurrent cameras, up from 10, and the same 12-millisecond latency on full-colour video see-through.

These specifications might sound vaguely familiar, as they closely resemble the spec sheet for the Apple Vision Pro, which is slated to arrive at some point early this year with a 4K-per-eye resolution, alongside mixed reality support thanks to 12 cameras on the headset and 12-millisecond latency on video passthrough.

That’s not to insinuate that Qualcomm has copied any homework here. It’s been building Snapdragon XR chipsets for several years now, and a semiconductor firm can’t just whip up a new chipset design in six months; the XR2+ Gen 2 will undoubtedly have been in development for a while. And I’ve got to say that having tried the Vision Pro and been blown away by the passthrough experience I’m really excited to see a Snapdragon chipset that will offer the same type of performance.

The question is when will headsets using the Snapdragon XR2+ Gen 2 arrive? Unfortunately, it won’t be for a while yet. Qualcomm is usually in the habit of announcing its mainline extended reality chipsets at the same time as a device-maker builds it into a headset — the most obvious examples are the mainline XR2 platforms unveiled alongside the Meta Quest 2 and Quest 3 headsets. However, this time there’s no headset launching simultaneously, but Qualcomm has confirmed that multiple device-makers are developing hardware with the chipset, including Samsung, HTC, Immersed and Play for Dream (formerly YVR).

The news about Samsung is particularly exciting as this all but confirms that the Snapdragon XR2+ Gen 2 will power the Korean firm’s forthcoming headset. It’s almost a year since Samsung invited Google and Qualcomm to join it onstage at the launch of the Galaxy S23 series to announce this collaboration, yet this is the first piece of real news we’ve gained about the headset since.

There have been plenty of rumours, including speculation that the Samsung headset would need to tether to a Galaxy smartphone following an interview given by TM Roh, who heads the company’s mobile experience division. However, the announcement that Samsung is building with Snapdragon XR2+ Gen 2 implies that we’re going to see a powerful standalone headset from the company when the time for launch comes. That timing remains a mystery, although late 2024 seems like the most likely window.

I’m not surprised to see Samsung wanting to offer a level of specifications that allows it to go head to head with Apple at the premium end of the market. Apple will have had a jump-start given its earlier launch date — some reports have suggested the Vision Pro could arrive as soon as February — and Samsung will want to come out of the blocks strongly with its own headset rather than being seen as a laggard straight off the bat.

It will be fascinating to see what uses Samsung and all the other device-makers using Snapdragon XR2+ Gen 2 find for this level of premium performance. Apple has been notably cool on gaming as a use for Vision Pro, despite this being the main driver of interest in virtual reality so far, and has leant heavily on its ecosystem of apps and content to suggest ways people may use its headset. Will Samsung, HTC and other device-makers that build on Qualcomm’s latest silicon take a similar approach and seek to expand more meaningfully beyond gaming?

Taken altogether, this is a fascinating development in the design of virtual and mixed reality devices. Just months on from the launch of the Quest 3 — which has, in my opinion, flown under the radar with its impressive performance with a 3K-per-eye display — it already feels as though the next generation of standalone headsets with even better visual technology is just around the corner. Undoubtedly, there’ll be a price to pay for this step, although I’m not expecting Qualcomm’s device partners to launch hardware quite in the same $3,500 price bracket as the Vision Pro.

We’ll learn more about the Snapdragon XR2+ Gen 2 in the coming weeks and months, and I expect to hear more from Qualcomm and its partners at CES. With the Vision Pro seemingly just around the corner, it’s a shame that we’re unlikely to see any headsets using this new chipset just yet, but the timing of this news feels like it’s designed to remind the tech industry at large that Apple won’t suddenly take over the spatial computing industry overnight. 2024 looks set to be an exciting year as these next-generation devices take to the field.