At the recent AWE 2023 event in California, Qualcomm presented some of the latest additions to its diverse ecosystem of software and hardware partners within the Snapdragon Spaces program. Qualcomm has embraced Khronos’ OpenXR standard for its own hardware and software and has worked towards enabling an ecosystem that’s as open and diverse as possible with this approach.
At AWE, Qualcomm’s vice president and general manager of XR, Hugo Swart, offered an update on Qualcomm’s vision for the XR market, one focused on AR. While including some context about what we learned from Apple’s big launch of the Vision Pro headset a week later, I want to demonstrate how Qualcomm is moving the industry forward in a much more scalable and attainable way than Apple by using a more open ecosystem approach.
Snapdragon Spaces Update
Some of the most ardent supporters of Qualcomm’s Snapdragon Spaces platform are the cellular operators who know that XR will soon be one of the key applications for 5G networks. Operators want to work with partners to enable new XR applications. The Snapdragon Spaces program is an excellent way to connect with software developers and integrators to take advantage of 5G using XR. At AWE 2023, Qualcomm announced that it is working with China Mobile, Deutsche Telekom, KDDI, NTT Qonoq, T-Mobile, Telefonica, Vodafone and Claro. I believe that private 5G networks from these operators may be one of the easiest ways to enable mobile XR experiences that quickly bring ROI to enterprises.
Qualcomm also announced that it is working with Niantic to bring its Lightship Virtual Positioning System (VPS) into Snapdragon Spaces, and that it already has 10 developers working on apps that take advantage of both Snapdragon Spaces and Lightship VPS. This is a significant development because Niantic is betting heavily on mobile AR experiences and has already built a reference design headset with Qualcomm to prototype those experiences. I believe that Niantic and Qualcomm are looking for a way to pair lightweight and comfortable AR headsets with smartphones to maximize the user experience in AR.
Speaking of AR headsets, Qualcomm also announced that its other hardware partners, DigiLens and TCL, would be supporting Snapdragon Spaces on their headsets. DigiLens’ ARGO is the first enterprise standalone AR headset to support Snapdragon Spaces, while the TCL Rayneo may be the first standalone consumer AR headset to do the same. These headsets join the Lenovo ThinkReality A3, a smartphone- or PC-tethered AR headset that I wrote a paper about last year. In addition to the ThinkReality A3, Lenovo also announced that its first standalone VR/MR headset—the VRX—will be the first VR headset to support Snapdragon Spaces. This makes Lenovo’s platform a one-stop shop for companies looking to deploy AR, VR and/or MR across Snapdragon Spaces with a single hardware partner.
At the AWE event, Qualcomm also touted a list of more than 65 XR devices now running on Snapdragon XR platforms, with more coming down the pipe.
Dual Render Fusion
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Dual Render Fusion delivers on Qualcomm’s promise to unify the XR headset experience with the smartphone ecosystem. In earlier phases of the XR industry’s development, there was a push to get developers to leave 2-D apps behind and move straight into spatial apps. However, with the market moving as slowly as it has, it became quite clear that Qualcomm and the industry needed to pivot in another, more developer-friendly direction so they could take advantage of the compute that people have already paid for. This change in strategy blossomed into enabling developers to create spatial components of their apps that still run on smartphones but that also take advantage of the smartphone as a user interface for XR headsets. I believe that this approach is much more palatable for developers at the same time that it targets the largest potential base of customers.
The biggest issue with this approach is that it still depends on the smartphone user having a Snapdragon smartphone, which excludes anyone using a device with a MediaTek or Samsung chipset. Additionally, not all Snapdragon phones are compatible with Snapdragon Spaces yet. For context on this, I recently reviewed the OnePlus 11 5G, the first phone to come with native support for Snapdragon Spaces. At AWE 2023, I saw a few demos of developer apps running Snapdragon Spaces with Dual Render Fusion, and it was interesting to see the OpenXR component of it also working. The user interface definitely feels somewhat limited today, but I think the involvement of developers will be critical for improving the experience and pushing Qualcomm to add features and capabilities.
New Partners and Metaverse Fund
In addition to announcing Dual Render Fusion, Qualcomm also announced new Metaverse Fund investments and partners. Qualcomm added EnlightXR as a partner to help distribute Snapdragon Spaces within China while helping its Chinese OEMs to build for Snapdragon Spaces and be more globally addressable at the same time. Qualcomm also announced an investment in Survios, which means that one of the most experienced VR game development companies is now onboard with Snapdragon Spaces. Meanwhile, Qualcomm has also invested in Tangle, startup building a remote work and collaboration tool; it sounds like Tangle will benefit greatly from having an XR component and could help Snapdragon Spaces expand further into business applications.
With these investments, for which the company did not disclose any amounts, Qualcomm continues to broaden the scope of the Snapdragon Spaces program and show OEMs that it has made considerable commitments to ensure that developers are building XR apps for their headsets. This has always been a chicken-and-egg problem for new platforms, but I believe that both content investment and developer engagement are critical for success.
In addition to the Snapdragon Spaces announcements at the show, Qualcomm and its hardware partners piled on a heap of other announcements. First was Oppo, which came on stage to announce its new mixed reality headset, the Oppo MR Glass Developer Edition—which will run Snapdragon Spaces, too. Just like the Apple Vision Pro, this headset is not designed for consumers, but it will be critical for developers to understand what’s possible with Oppo’s MR headset and how to develop apps for it. The MR Glass Developer Edition comes with two 120-hertz 2k-by-2k displays behind pancake lenses, ships with a Snapdragon XR2+ Gen 1 processor, and has both heart-rate detection and Supervooc fast-charging. I got to try out this headset in both VR and MR modes and found it satisfactory, if not necessarily earth-shattering. Everything seemed to work fairly well, but it was also clear that this was an early device with limited capabilities and apps.
In addition to Oppo’s MR headset, I got to try the world’s first AR laptop, the Sightful Spacetop. Sightful partnered with XReal to develop a customized version of its glasses, which run on a Qualcomm XR2 Gen 1, for laptop use. I also found it interesting that Sightful will be shipping all Spacetops with 5G connectivity; I believe this could be a great opportunity for operators working with enterprises to maximize worker productivity and mobility while keeping data safe from prying eyes. I think the Sightful partnership with Qualcomm on Snapdragon Spaces will also pay dividends because the Spacetop’s capabilities will mostly be limited to what can run on Android and what Sightful can bring into its version of AOSP (Android Open Source Project) with its custom OS.
The Apple Equation
Qualcomm is clearly positioned to enable Android OEMs and others to deliver XR experiences to their customers and partners. Qualcomm is effectively doing the work that Google should’ve done years ago, but Google backed out of the industry too quickly, forcing Qualcomm to pick up the platform/ecosystem banner. I fully believe that it should be Google’s job to deliver what Snapdragon Spaces offers today, but the company can’t seem to get out of its own way in XR, especially when you look at something like its acquisition of North, among others. Google acquired North in 2020 with a extremely promising lightweight AR smartglasses with a second generation on the way that fixed many of the first generation’s issues. Three years later, there’s still no second generation Focals by North or anything that resembles it from Google.
Apple’s approach is to create just another taller, more expensive walled garden for AR, and the company’s spatial computing vision is inherently not focused on mobile. I think this will make developers less enticed to develop for the VisionOS platform, especially considering that the initial headsets on the market will cost $3,500, and the product line apparently won’t be anything close to mass-market anytime soon. I am surprised by how little Apple has talked about how the Vision Pro will work with the iPhone, in contrast to Qualcomm’s vision of having the smartphone and AR headset work together harmoniously. Eventually, Apple will surely also follow this approach with its more mainstream headsets, but who knows how long that will take? I wouldn’t be surprised it it’s another four or five years from now.
Qualcomm knows that it has quite the uphill battle to fight, but I believe that Apple’s Vision Pro launch validated Qualcomm’s Snapdragon Spaces strategy and has drawn attention to the differences between the two companies’ approaches. While I don’t believe that Qualcomm’s AWE 2023 announcements were earth-shattering, I do believe that they bring meaningful progress in enabling the ecosystem to grow and to enable developers to build XR components within their apps which might eventually convert to fully spatial apps where 2-D is merely a fallback experience for low-bandwidth connections.
Seeing many familiar faces around the Snapdragon Spaces ecosystem and a few new ones like DigiLens, Oppo and Sightful was great. I also haven’t yet talked about some of the big developments coming later in the year from Meta, which decided to tease its Meta Quest 3 ahead of Apple’s launch during the heat of AWE 2023. Later this summer I will publish a complete assessment of the state of the XR and spatial computing industry with all my thoughts on what’s been announced and what comes next.