Out of the flurry of XR industry activity at Augmented World Expo (AWE) 2021, one announcement that stood out was Qualcomm’s new XR development platform, Snapdragon Spaces. Not your typical Qualcomm platform rollout, Snapdragon Spaces represents the first wearable AR developer kit explicitly created for application developers hoping to build apps for AR and VR headsets. Moreover, it hopes to open Qualcomm’s ecosystem to all mobile developers, not just those who focus on AR and VR. While you can use Snapdragon Spaces to build entire AR-centric apps, the platform’s real differentiator is that it allows developers to implement different AR capabilities bit by bit. This strategy stands to pull in more mobile developers who may be wary of building an entire app for the still nascent technology. If successful, the gambit could do much to advance the XR industry, which has thus far struggled to drive AR headset adoption, especially in consumer applications. Let’s take a closer look at the platform.
Who’s it for?
Snapdragon Spaces specifically targets developers looking to build applications for head-worn AR headsets like the nReal Light and Lenovo’s ThinkReality A3. Unlike standalone AR headsets, these devices must connect to a smartphone for compute, battery and connectivity. We learned at the event that Snapdragon Spaces will be the default development platform for the ThinkReality A3 (not surprising given the tight partnership between Qualcomm and Lenovo). It would be wise for nReal to follow suit in adopting Snapdragon Spaces as the default development platform for its next headset, considering the criticism it has recently gotten over its perceived lack of apps and inconsistent experience.
What does it do?
Snapdragon Spaces offers developers out-of-the-box AR features like positional tracking, image recognition, occlusion, scene understanding, object recognition, hand tracking and spatial mapping. Recent Qualcomm acquisitions Wikitude and Clay Air helped round out the platform’s perception and gesture features.
As mentioned earlier, Snapdragon Spaces focuses more on enabling AR features than making the AR central to the app’s experience. While you can build a complete AR app with Qualcomm’s Snapdragon Spaces, app developers can continue operating on their existing stores and payment frameworks. In other words, it is a genuinely open software platform, which explains why engine companies Epic and Unity have signed on to support it. That said, Snapdragon Spaces will still only run on Snapdragon-based devices, which means hardware compatibility is a little less open and it won’t support MediaTek and Samsung Exynos-based devices. This does make XR somewhat of a premium experience considering that mostly premium Qualcomm SoCs support AR and VR today. However, I expect we will see that come down the chain fairly soon with future chipsets.
Notably, Snapdragon Spaces is OpenXR compliant from the ground up, ensuring cross-platform support for the apps that developers build with it. The platform also counts Niantic as a supporter, despite the company having its own Lightship platform for AR app development. It’s worth mentioning that Qualcomm and Niantic have also partnered together for an AR headset reference design. Although we have not seen it yet, it’s very likely it will run on Snapdragon Spaces.
Snapdragon Spaces also has the support of some of the world’s biggest carriers, including Deutsche Telekom, NTT DoCoMo and T-Mobile. These operators are excited to combine the powers of 5G and AR. Device makers are also already on board, including Lenovo, Motorola, Oppo and Xiaomi. These manufacturers are already building their headsets and compatible smartphones, and others will likely follow suit. Qualcomm also shared that it has a few notable early access developers already building apps for Snapdragon Spaces, including Felix & Paul Studios, Figmin XR, Resolution Games, Scope, Trigger and TRIPP.
Qualcomm’s approach doesn’t necessarily compete directly with other companies in the XR space, like Meta, whom it counts among its customers. However, it does create an open-source alternative to closed AR ecosystems that might be launching a headset soon. Microsoft and Meta are both focused on bringing developers into their ecosystems and monetizing those application sales and others like Apple won’t be far behind. Qualcomm’s model enables developers to use whatever platform they want and develop for whatever engine they prefer. While Snapdragon Spaces may be a software solution, ultimately, Qualcomm’s goal is to enable a more robust AR ecosystem. Such an environment, in turn, will boost the sales of more AR headsets (and the smartphones that power them).
The work Qualcomm is doing with Snapdragon Spaces should help developers and device makers bring AR to market faster. It must be said, however, that Google should be the one doing a lot of this work, as the owner of the Android operating system and ARCore (the successor of Tango). I believe that Google’s aggressive pullback from AR and VR has hurt the industry as a whole and made everyone who isn’t Apple or Meta less competitive. I believe Snapdragon Spaces could reignite Android-based AR and begin to capitalize on the potential of the headsets in the market today.
Qualcomm’s change of strategy is at once unique and welcome: give developers an AR toolkit to use on the apps they are already building, in the ecosystems they already use. The openness is the critical ingredient that should allow Snapdragon Spaces to reach as many developers as possible—not just the small subset of existing XR developers.