New XR1 chip from Qualcomm starts path to dedicated VR/AR processing

During the Augmented World Expo in Santa Clara this week, Qualcomm announced a new, dedicated platform for future XR (extended reality) devices, the Snapdragon XR1. Targeting future standalone AR and VR headset and glasses designs, the XR1 marks the beginning of the company’s dedicated platforms aimed squarely at the segment.

The Snapdragon XR1 will be the first of a family of XR dedicated chips and platforms to enable a wide range of performance and pricing classes across an array of partner devices. Qualcomm is only releasing information on the XR1 today, but we can assume that future iterations will be incoming to create a tiered collection of processors to target mainstream to flagship level hardware.

Though Qualcomm today uses the existing Snapdragon mobile platforms to build its AR/VR reference designs, the expected growth of this field into a 186-million-unit base by 2023 is pushing the company to be more direct and more specialized in its product development.

The Snapdragon XR1 will address what Qualcomm calls the “high quality” implementations of VR. Placed well above the cheap or free “cardboard” integrations of smartphone-enabled designs, the XR1 exists to create solutions that are at or above the current level of standalone VR hardware powered by current Qualcomm chips. Today’s landscape of devices features products like the Oculus Go powered by the Snapdragon 821 mobile platform and the Lenovo Mirage Solo using the Snapdragon 835. Both are excellent examples of VR implementations, but the company sees a long-term benefit from removing the association of “mobile processor” from its flagship offerings for XR.

Instead, the value of creating a customized, high-value brand for Qualcomm to target dedicated VR headsets gives the company flexibility in pricing and feature set, without pigeon-holing the product team into predefined directions.

The specifics on the new Snapdragon XR1 are a bit of a mystery, but it includes most of the components we are used to seeing in mobile designs. That means a Kryo CPU, an Adreno GPU, a Hexagon DSP, audio processing, security features, image signal processor, and Wi-Fi. Missing from the mix is an LTE-capable modem, something that seems at least slightly counter to the company’s overall message of always connected devices.

Detailed performance metrics are missing for now, as Qualcomm allows its partners to design products around the XR1. With varying thermal constraints and battery life requirements, I think we’ll see some design-to-design differences between hardware. At that point we will need Qualcomm to divulge more information about the inner workings of the Snapdragon XR1.

I expect we’ll find the XR1 to perform around the level of the Snapdragon 835 SoC. This is interesting as the company has already announced the Snapdragon 845 as part of its latest AR/VR standalone reference headset design. The XR1 is targeting mainstream pricing in the world of VR, think the $200-$400 range, leaving the Snapdragon 845 as the current leader. If and when we see an XR2 model announced, I expect it will exceed the performance of the SD 845 and the family of XR chips will expand accordingly.

The Qualcomm Snapdragon XR1 does have some impressive capabilities of its own, though keep in mind that all of this is encompassed in the 845 designs as well. Features like 4K HDR display output, 3D spatial audio with aptX and Aqstic capability, voice UI and noise filtering, and even AI processing courtesy of the CPU/GPU/DSP combo, all feature prominently in the XR1. The chip will support both 3DoF (degree of freedom) movement and controllers as well as 6DoF, though the wider range of available movement will be associated with higher tier, higher priced devices.

The first crop of announced customers includes HTC Vive and several others. Oculus isn’t on the list, but I think that’s because the Oculus Go was just released and utilizes a lower level of processor technology than XR1 will provide. Qualcomm has solidified its leadership position in the world of standalone AR/VR headsets, with almost no direct competition on the horizon. As the market opportunity expands, so will the potential for Qualcomm’s growth in it, but also the likelihood we will see other companies dip their toes into the mix.

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Ryan Shrout

Ryan is the founder and lead analyst at Shrout Research, consulting and advising leaders in the mobile, graphics, processors and platforms. With more than 17 years of experience evaluating and analyzing hardware and technology as the owner of PC Perspective, Ryan has a breadth of knowledge in nearly all fields of hardware including CPUs, GPUs, SoC design, memory systems, storage, graphics, displays and their integration into smartphones, laptops, PCs and VR headsets. Ryan has worked with nearly every major technology giant and their product management teams including Intel, Qualcomm, AMD, NVIDIA, MediaTek, Dell, Lenovo, Huawei, HTC, Samsung, ASUS, Oculus, Microsoft and Adobe. With a focus on in-depth and real-world testing and with nearly two decades of hands-on experience, he focuses Shrout Research on bringing valuable insight on competitive analysis, consumer product expectations and real-world experience comparisons.

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