The AWE (Augmented World Expo), is a premier AR/VR event held every year in Santa Clara, California. During the keynote this year (held virtually, for obvious reasons), Qualcomm, a Platinum sponsor of the event, shared details on the momentum of the semiconductor manufacturer’s XR viewer program. Qualcomm has been pushing the smart viewer program for quite some time now, and launched an accelerator a little over a year ago. The purpose of this program is two-fold: enable OEMs to build headsets that are compatible with smartphones, and get operators to take the devices and give them the 5G connectivity they need. In order to ensure this interoperability between smartphone OEMs’ devices and VR/AR viewer OEMs’ devices, the industry must settle on a common set of specs, software, tools and certifications. To that end, Qualcomm announced the newest phase of the program, which it refers to as XR Optimized. Let’s take a look at the OEMS and operators who have embraced the program so far.
Currently, the OEMs involved in the smart viewer program include both AR and VR headset manufacturers. Many of these are Asian OEMs, including companies like nReal, Shadow Creator, OPPO, Epson, Panasonic and Pico, among others. Part of the reason for this is that many of the OEMs in North America and Europe either have standalone headsets or are self-contained devices. The smartphone OEMs are predominantly from Asia as well, including ASUS, Black Shark, OnePlus, OPPO, Vivo and ZTE. Between all of these OEMs, Qualcomm’s program represents a significant chunk of the Android ecosystem, though the list is notably missing companies like Samsung and Huawei. Those two companies develop their own chips—a barrier to inclusion, given the program is based on Qualcomm’s Snapdragon chipsets.
Qualcomm’s major announcement was that the company has recruited 15 of the world’s leading 5G global operators to embrace XR viewers and the program. This list of 5G operators is actually more impressive than the viewer OEMs or the Smartphone OEMs. It includes all three major Chinese operators, China Mobile, China Telecom and China Unicom, as well as all three major Korean operators, Kt, LG U+ and SK Telecom. In Japan alone, Qualcomm is partnering with NTT DoCoMo, KDDI and SoftBank, to cover most of the country’s population. In Europe, it managed to wrangle Deutsche Telekom, Orange, Vodafone and Telefonica. Surprisingly, Verizon is the only partner in the U.S.—strange, since T-Mobile and AT&T currently have a much bigger 5G install base. That said, T-Mobile US is mostly owned by Deutsche Telecom and Softbank, which are both part of this program. Those partnerships may indirectly include T-Mobile US. In total, Qualcomm’s operator partners in the XR Optimized Certification Program have shared plans to sample and commercialize XR viewers to their impressive combined 3.2 billion mobile subscribers. That is huge.
Ensuring the interchangeability between smartphone and AR/VR OEMs is the next phase of bringing XR and 5G together, and it makes sense that it is coming from one of the leaders in XR and 5G. Users are going to not want to worry about which phone or headset they need—they just want things to work. The fragmentation is one of the biggest barriers for immersive computing, but things are improving. Qualcomm’s XR Optimized Certification Program will definitely move the ball further down the court.
I have long believed that 5G and XR need one another to be successful. After all, what are you going to do with all that increased bandwidth that you can’t already do today with your phone? XR will also require the bandwidth to download and stream content smoothly. To illustrate this point, I just downloaded a 4.8 GB documentary on my Oculus Quest. That would be an unthinkable download on 4G, but on 5G, with 1Gbps+ connectivity, it took minutes rather than hours (I have Gigabit Fiber and a Multi-Gigabit Wi-Fi 6 router at home). The success of 5G and XR is heavily dependent on one another and while both could independently become successful, there is a significant amplification and acceleration that will come from them being paired together. This is why I expect the XR Optimized Program will be very attractive to operators—it takes 5G phones, which are already selling, and makes them even more useful and engaging. Meanwhile, it’s also expanding the potential services these operators could offer. Most are still figuring out how to deliver non-immersive content, but I believe some of them are beginning to understand the importance of delivering quality immersive content.