This week Qualcomm announced the XR2, its next-generation silicon to power what it calls extended reality (XR), which encompasses augmented, virtual, and mixed-reality experiences. The new product brings a long list of interesting new capabilities to the table, but the marquee feature is 5G support. The XR2 builds on the success Qualcomm enjoyed with the original XR1 chip, which is in just about every notable standalone AR or VR headset shipping today. The XR2 further cements the company’s leadership position in an AR/VR market that I believe will eventually play a very important role in our computing lives.
Faster, Better, Stronger
Qualcomm achieved some fairly dramatic performance gains over the XR1 with its new chip. The company says it delivers twice the CPU and GPU performance, four times the video bandwidth, six times the resolution, and 11X the AI performance of the original XR1 chip. The new XR2 will sit at a premium pricing level, appearing in new products next year, while Qualcomm will continue to ship the XR1 for use in more mainstream products.
Powerful silicon is great, but only in the service of real-world performance. Qualcomm says the new product can drive 1.5 times the pixel rate and three times the texel rate for graphics rendering while supporting an impressive 3K by 3K resolution per eye at 90 frames per second. The XR2 can also support 8K, 360-degree video at 60 frames per second. How does this translate into a better experience? I had the opportunity to demo a reference headset with the XR2 and to compare it to a currently shipping product that features the original XR1. The differences were not subtle, and the ability of the XR2 to render much more readable text will be a huge boon to companies using VR for training scenarios.
In addition to improved visuals, the new XR2 platform also enables support for up to seven concurrent cameras and utilizes a custom computer vision processor. Seven cameras mean vendors can create headsets that not only capture a person’s surroundings (for AR use cases in a pass-though mode), but they can also drive accurate real-time tracking of head, eyes, face, and hands. This level of capture can drive more immersive environments, enable improved (controller-free) hand-tracking input, and facilitate the ability to create much more realistic avatars. That last part is key when it comes to driving improved collaboration in both AR and VR, as one of the primary things we’ve lost with voice conferencing is the visual cues people unconsciously share when they are together with others in a real-world meeting. Of course, audio is also incredibly important when it comes to driving emersion, and Qualcomm says it has dramatically improved the spatial sound capabilities of the XR2 utilizing an always-on custom DSP.
Buzzword Compliant: 5G and AI
Qualcomm spent a great deal of time throughout its tech summit talking about its continued work in artificial intelligence (AI), and it brought some of those learning to the XR2. AI drives a wide range of features in the new product, including 3D reconstruction, semantic segmentation, object detection and recognition, object occlusion, depth understanding, hand tracking, voice UI, and real-time audio translation. In other words, it is using AI to drive a more immersive, more natural experience whether the user is in augmented or virtual reality. Qualcomm tells a good story here, and I look forward to seeing real-world examples of these capabilities in action in real products down the road.
Finally, with the addition of 5G, Qualcomm provides headset vendors with the first integrated AR/VR platform to offer the next generation of connectivity. While 5G availability in the real world is still quite limited, as the network build-out continues into 2020 and beyond the high-bandwidth, low-latency of the technology has the potential to unlock some very interesting new use cases for both consumer and commercial users. I will eagerly wait to see how Qualcomm and its partners achieve the always-challenging balance of enabling high-throughput cellular performance while maintaining a reasonable battery life. This feat is even more challenging when the device in question is on your head and not in your hand.
Ecosystem Build-Out and Extending Its Lead
Qualcomm spent a fair amount of time extolling the virtues of its new XR2 product, but it also turned over a large section of its event to some of its key partners. The best silicon in the world isn’t much good if there aren’t hardware vendors to build the headsets, developers to write code, and users to dream up the next generation use cases. We heard from partners including Unity, Mitchell, Accenture, Deutsche Telekom, and Spatial. The latter demonstrated its platform that brings together AR and VR devices to create collaborative workspaces. I had the opportunity to try the demo myself, and as a full-time remote worker I have to say: I’m ready for this future to arrive now.
In the end, Qualcomm offered up a compelling, well-told story around the XR2. What’s equally notable is that, for the most part, few of its competitors are talking much about this space at all. As a result, it feels as if Qualcomm is building a lead that will make it near impossible for other silicon vendors to catch up. That means as this market matures and eventually begins to grow in earnest, Qualcomm will have a strong first-mover position. The wild card, of course, is Apple, which is undoubtedly cooking up its own specialty silicon for future AR products. Until Apple shows its cards, the XR2 is clearly the AR/VR silicon king of the hill.