Split Reality

Qualcomm takes another step toward truly smart glasses

Augmented reality (AR) glasses are one of the most talked about technologies of the future. The idea of taking the functionality of a smartphone and turning it into a hands-free, wearable device that can intelligently interact with the world around us is the goal for many. The path to that goal has proven difficult at times, and although companies continue to make progress, the often asked question is, how long until truly smart AR glasses become a reality?

As with so many areas of emerging technology, it pays to listen to those involved in the silicon layer. Identifying the next major step in the semiconductor market can provide a clear insight into the world of tomorrow, as the next wave of devices will harness these chipsets and platforms for power and performance. That’s why I think the latest news from Qualcomm’s extended reality (XR) division is so significant.

This week, the company announced a new reference design for AR viewer devices based on its Snapdragon XR1 platform. The design showcases a split-processing approach, meaning the viewer can share computing workloads with a host device, such as a smartphone or PC. In contrast, existing XR viewers, such as the Nreal Light device, don’t hold any processing power on-board, relying on the host device for its performance entirely.

Why does this matter? Well, to return to the original question, I believe this is an important next step on the journey toward fully-fledged AR glasses, and the next generation of spatial computing. The split-processing approach will help to solve some of the problems facing today’s XR viewers, providing a stepping stone to even better devices and richer computing experiences.

For example, a problem with today’s XR viewers is that the devices fully rely on a host for their power. Qualcomm says that the split-rendering approach, assisted by computing power within the viewer, will pave the way for XR viewers that use up to 30% less power overall than the current crop of devices — that’s a huge improvement.

The additional processing power will also lead to new uses. For instance, users on a smartphone or a laptop should be able to run multiple virtual displays within their field of view, making it easier and simpler to engage with 2D content in XR. And, in time, newer 3D applications designed to take advantage of these devices will revolutionize the way we socialize, work and play together.

Much like the way the virtual reality market is segmenting as it matures, with devices targeting a variety of uses, different AR device designs will play to different strengths. Simple viewers like the Nreal Light offer a lightweight, simple design for things like streaming content, whereas designs based on a split-processing approach will be more valuable to enterprise customers in the shorter term; Lenovo’s ThinkReality A3 glasses, launched at CES 2021 are an early example.

Still, consumer uses like media consumption and gaming will emerge and find space in the market. And as we’ve seen in virtual reality, improvements come quickly in areas including displays, tracking and user interface, delivering continuously improving experiences that will roll down the price curve over time.

Naturally, the next step will be taking this approach to a wireless design, a view shared by Qualcomm, which has said that this is the next step on its journey. The company has already achieved wireless split-processing in the virtual reality space with what it calls “boundless XR” technology. So realistically, once we see this distilled into AR devices, we’ll only be a half step away from powerful AR glasses that are indistinguishable from a pair of spectacles.

As a result, it feels like the promise of AR glasses is sharpening into focus. As a major player helping to build the XR ecosystem, Qualcomm’s view of the future is clearer than most, and as the silicon provider of choice for major XR devices, it’s important to pay attention to its reference designs. I’d argue that this update gives us the best look yet at the future of AR, as well as the steps required to deliver truly smart glasses and the next generation of mobile computing.