The Future of XR According to Hugo Swart, Qualcomm

Qualcomm VP tells us about the promising next wave of headsets

This article is the second in a two-part series about our recent interview with Hugo Swart. The first blog, which looks at Qualcomm’s approach to extended reality, can be found here. In this piece, we look at some of the critical questions facing this market as it looks to the future.

The extended reality (XR) market has enjoyed success recently, but the focus is always on what comes next. I expect the answer to that question to be slimmer, lighter and more powerful devices that will run richer content, delivering powerful and immersive experiences for users. Naturally, there are many hurdles to overcome to make this a reality, and I was keen to put some of the questions about the hardware of the future to Hugo Swart, vice president and general manager of Qualcomm’s XR business.

One of the biggest challenges to the progress of XR is the processing requirements for visually rich content. As games, video and other emerging formats develop, they will need more computing power. However, this runs directly against the goal to make virtual and augmented reality (VR and AR) headsets smaller, as more power demands more space on a device. It’s a conundrum that the industry is working hard to solve, and I was eager to hear Hugo’s perspective.

“In any VR or AR headset, you have a limitation on how much power you can dissipate,” Hugo says. “But for some of these new XR experiences, I will need even more power than we need now. And that’s where I think that distributed processing will become imperative. The headset will always do some of the work. The phone can do some rendering. And the cloud is going to play a part too. When this comes together, you can do it dynamically.”

He continues, “This means, depending on how much power or battery I have on the device, the connection quality, latency and so forth, I can dynamically adjust. But this isn’t easy to solve, and it’s going to take some time to do.”

Undoubtedly, split processing will play a critical role, and Hugo expects that services will split between multiple devices, which will work together, with better interoperability.

“Think about your smartwatch, your smart glasses, your phone, your PC — it’s a constellation of devices, and the services you use will move around, depending on what device you have at any given moment.”

In particular, he sees interoperability between watch and headset playing an important role — a tactic we’ve already seen Facebook use in its work toward XR experiences of the future (CCS Insight customers can read our take on this here).

Focussing specifically on forms of headsets, Hugo believes there are four possible paths for AR products. The first is all-in-one or standalone devices, like Microsoft’s HoloLens; the second is XR viewers, which balance design and capability requirements by tethering to host devices; the third is simpler smart glasses that use a heads-up display rather than offering a true AR experience; and finally, high-performance VR headsets with passthrough capabilities, which Qualcomm refers to as mixed reality devices.

But it’s not a case of investing in one type of design and hoping it wins. “I think the four will develop in parallel. I don’t think we’re going to see one kill the others, although we may see things start to converge over time”, notes Hugo, making the point that different device types will excel in certain locations. For example, mixed reality experiences are likely to be for indoor use, as these devices will remain bulky. Similarly, I’d argue that different types of content will work best on different devices, and this means that multiple designs will be extremely important.

When it comes to supporting this new content, Qualcomm is actively focussing on tackling problems like simultaneous localization and mapping, or SLAM, to help the whole network of devices and services build even more immersive XR experiences. As the industry looks to entice new customers to the XR fold, they must focus on offering experiences beyond gaming. For example, fitness is emerging as a core application, as our recent VR consumer survey found, and well-being looks set to be a broader area of interest, with experiences like mindfulness and meditation.

Education is another area where Hugo thinks more can be done — and not just in the classroom.

“Think about the kind of things where you can place yourself in a different environment,” he suggests. “For example, if I need to learn how to speak Mandarin, or I want to improve at public speaking. I can practise in front of virtual people or characters, so I can get more comfortable.”

This is where I think we should be most excited about the future of XR. The possible uses extend well beyond those available right now, and we’re only going to see better applications for the technology develop over time. As VR and AR devices continue to get better and gain more popularity, the number of users will grow, more developers will come on board, and I’m certain that we’ll see a powerful flywheel of hardware and software that will lift the technology to new heights.

The XR market is already developing apace thanks to the efforts of companies like Qualcomm, and although we may still be some years away from a pair of smart glasses that look no different from normal eyewear, the journey to that goal is clearer than ever. Yes, there are some challenges to overcome, but the sense of progress is there, with new devices and content launching more and more regularly. With XR devices continuing to push the boundaries and exciting content on the horizon, I can’t wait to see what comes next.