How Qualcomm Plans To Make AR Viewers Smarter And More Useful

By Patrick Moorhead - March 11, 2021
Qualcomm's new Snapdragon XR1 AR Smart Viewer reference design.

To facilitate the acceleration of AR, this week Qualcomm released a reference design for its Snapdragon XR1 Smart Viewer. Co-developed in partnership with Chinese partners BOE and Goertek, experts in display and XR technologies, this reference design is capable of simultaneously running multiple advanced features and high-quality graphics. Let’s take a closer look at the new release and how it fits into Qualcomm’s strategy.


Many of you may not be fully versed in the nomenclature of the XR community, so let us start off by explaining what a simple ‘AR Viewer’ is and what makes it ‘Smart.’ To do that, we need to understand that everything in XR has a spectrum of immersion. This means that AR itself is closer to the ‘real world’ than virtual reality and exists to overlay digital objects and assets in the real world. Once you start digitizing the real world and mixing reality with virtual reality, you start to get deeper into the weeds of mixed reality and other mixtures of AR and VR. 

For a simple AR viewer, you are looking at a device that connects to some form of additional compute in a smartphone or a PC. This differentiates from something like a Microsoft Hololens which is a self-contained standalone AR headset with all the processing and compute onboard. One could argue that Magic Leap’s headsets are smart viewers, however the headset does not detach from the compute and while it appears to look like an AR viewer it is not. 

A simple AR viewer consists of a pair of displays, cameras and some components that help to process the incoming display signal, as well as report back to the compute unit the camera feeds. Devices like the Nreal Light, Shadow Creator Honghu and the Pacific Future Am Glass all leverage a form of compute to power a pair of thinner and lighter glasses than a standalone headset. There are even VR versions of these glasses from the likes of Pico and Panasonic, but ultimately, these solutions offload all tasks to the smartphone or compute puck. With smart AR viewers, you have a base-level of processing onboard to handle things like perception features (head and hand tracking), display processing, spatial audio, and pass-through video, while the compute device (a phone or PC) can tackle the graphics, connectivity, and overall processing. 

By splitting up the processing between the smart AR viewer and a compute device, you can perform more tasks simultaneously; more resources are freed up to do fewer menial tasks. Processors like Qualcomm’s XR1 can already do many basic AR functions at low power in fixed function hardware, which improves performance and latency. By doing the most mission-critical processing on the glasses, you can reduce latency, reduce power consumption, and improve the overall experience. While these headsets do have enough processing to do some base-level AR, they are the most useful when attached to their more powerful external compute devices., like a Snapdragon 888-based smartphone or a PC. 

Qualcomm’s wireless AR smart viewer vision

Qualcomm’s goal is ultimately to make these Smart AR viewers fully wireless, connecting to a PC or smartphone over Wi-Fi 6E (which delivers enough bandwidth and low latency performance to render cables obsolete). While many believe that WiGig and 802.11ad could accomplish this with higher bandwidth and lower latency, mmWave is much more sensitive to blockage by the human body—it would not work very well with a phone or compute device in a pocket. With Wi-Fi 6E utilizing the mostly untouched 6 GHz band and only supporting 802.11ax in the 6 GHz band, interference and latency should be much better than previous generations of Wi-Fi. Wi-Fi 6E will also be the conduit by which these headsets will leverage 5G as more and more smartphones and PCs support the new technology.

Enter the Snapdragon XR1 Smart Viewer Reference Design

As mentioned earlier, the Snapdragon XR1 reference design can run multiple advanced features while also running high quality graphics simultaneously. While other chipsets may contain a multitude of processors and bridge chips, The simplicity of the XR1’s chipset configuration makes it compatible with more devices, such as 5G smartphones or PCs. The XR1 was also designed for optimal performance with Snapdragon 888 and Windows on Snapdragon. 

Qualcomm’s reference design supports USB 3.2 Gen 1 Type-C (5 Gbps) and has a small battery that allows for the swapping of the headset between devices without fully losing power. While this headset’s FoV is 45 degrees, Qualcomm expects that many of its partners will adopt different optics solutions. The design also includes a 2D app framework to enable 2D Android applications as virtual windows inside of the smart viewer, capable of projecting both secure and premium content. This will accelerate the adoption of AR without necessarily putting any burden on the developers to support. That said, 3D applications will likely be far more immersive and engaging.

While Lenovo did not build its new ThinkReality A3 AR smart viewer on Qualcomm’s XR1 reference design, the company did develop its new AR smart viewer in conjunction with Qualcomm’s development of the XR1 AR smart viewer reference design. This new headset, announced at CES, will ship in two versions—a PC Edition and an Industrial Edition. The PC Edition will be primarily focused towards PC users who desire to access additional virtual screens and who wish to leverage more immersive applications. The Industrial Edition will be a more robust pair of glasses designed to attach to a smartphone for industrial in-the-field work, such as field service and remote assistance. It will be interesting to see what other OEMs follow suit now that the XR1 AR smart viewer design is available.

Wrapping up

In conclusion, I believe the rest of the ecosystem should consider adopting this new reference design. That said, hardware is only one component of the equation; both platform and content are necessary for a complete solution. Lenovo’s new ThinkReality A3 AR smart viewer solution leverages both cutting edge hardware and secure software to deliver a complete enterprise solution and we simply do not see that as much on other headsets of this type, yet. I hope that this reference design may encourage others to bring headsets to market that exhibit this—I, for one, hope it will pressure Google to push hard into AR once again. There is a possibility that Facebook could adopt this platform given its close partnership with Qualcomm, but I do not really see how it would tie into Facebook’s existing VR ecosystem (at least not quite yet). Ultimately, Qualcomm’s plan is enablement. If it can even partially replicate its success in VR with this XR1 AR Smart Viewer Reference Design, I think it will pay huge dividends down the road.

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Patrick founded the firm based on his real-world world technology experiences with the understanding of what he wasn’t getting from analysts and consultants. Ten years later, Patrick is ranked #1 among technology industry analysts in terms of “power” (ARInsights)  in “press citations” (Apollo Research). Moorhead is a contributor at Forbes and frequently appears on CNBC. He is a broad-based analyst covering a wide variety of topics including the cloud, enterprise SaaS, collaboration, client computing, and semiconductors. He has 30 years of experience including 15 years of executive experience at high tech companies (NCR, AT&T, Compaq, now HP, and AMD) leading strategy, product management, product marketing, and corporate marketing, including three industry board appointments.