XR And Spatial Computing Were Everywhere At MWC 2023

By Anshel Sag, Patrick Moorhead - March 29, 2023
ANSHEL SAG

This year’s Mobile World Congress, MWC 2023, was the first true Mobile World Congress since 2019, and it was quite apparent that the show was back in full swing. I attended the event last year, but it was considerably smaller—a shell of its former self—which is something I couldn’t say about this year’s show. The GSMA, which organizes the event, says that 88,000 people attended this year, up from 66,000 last year (albeit still down from 2019’s 109,000).

One thing at the forefront of the show was, once again, the nebulous concept of the “Metaverse” as it relates to XR and the many different ways that people might use spatial computing. It’s important to keep in mind that the MWC will always have a mobile-heavy outlook, naturally making it more AR-focused than VR-focused. There are also usually 5G tie-ins for many of the products shown, which makes sense given that the mobile industry is dominated by 5G.

AR headsets, everywhere

This year’s MWC had more AR headsets than I’ve ever seen. I chalk this up to the industry-wide expectation that Apple will launch its own headset later this year. During the CES event at the beginning of 2023, companies including TCL, Vuzix and Digilens announced their newest AR headsets. (I wrote about the Digilens headset here.) These companies were also present at MWC 2023, showing off their headsets to a different audience. Meanwhile, some of their competitors—Xiaomi, Oppo and ZTE among them—waited until the MWC show to announce their headsets, prototypes or reference designs.

Xiaomi’s AR headset is a prototype based on Qualcomm’s new Snapdragon AR2 Gen 1 platform, specifically designed for mobile AR use cases where the headset can be tethered to a Snapdragon 5G smartphone. Because Xiaomi is a predominantly Qualcomm Snapdragon manufacturer, this isn’t a big deal in terms of compatibility. However, I was a little surprised that none of Xiaomi’s new 13 series phones were announced as “Snapdragon Spaces Ready,” as its competitor OnePlus did with the OnePlus 11. The Xiaomi AR glasses looked quite striking and felt pretty good on the face, but I did not get a chance to try them plugged into a phone because the display models were not fully functioning production units. Given Xiaomi’s ecosystem approach, I could definitely see Xiaomi integrating these glasses with its other devices and services.

ANSHEL SAG

Oppo showed off its second-generation Air Glass, which has now graduated from being a monocular glasses attachment to a binocular—yet still 2-D—experience. Once again, these glasses are monochrome, likely waiting for RGB micro-OLED displays to come to market before they shift to color. Oppo originally announced the Air Glass 2 at its Oppo Inno Day held in China in December, but like it does with many of its products, the company brought its AR products to a global audience for the first time at MWC. These glasses were very lightweight (just 38g) and comfortable to wear, and overall looked much better than most AR glasses in the market today. However, most of their functionality is still limited to 2-D and monochrome experiences. The company is still leading its application offerings with the most basic applications, including real-time translation, which wasn’t working on the glasses yet. No word on why it wasn’t ready for MWC 2023 yet.

ZTE made a big splash at MWC with two spatial computing announcements, for the ZTE Nubia Neovision Glass headset and the ZTE Nubia Pad 3D. What’s interesting is that ZTE’s new headset, both on paper and on the face, looks a lot like the AR headsets that were circulating in early 2020 before the pandemic began. So I’m a little perplexed by this announcement, because it doesn’t really do anything new or unique for ZTE compared to its competitors. This is in stark contrast to the ZTE Nubia Pad 3D, which is clearly a cutting-edge device—one that we’ll go into more detail about later in this article.

ANSHEL SAG

TCL’s latest AR glasses, known as the RayNeo X2, are a bit larger than your standard AR glasses, but are also standalone devices with a Snapdragon XR2 chipset inside, enabling quite powerful AR experiences. At the moment, these glasses are still only 2-D, even though they do have binocular displays. I got an excellent real-time translation demo on these glasses, even in a noisy room with quite a bit of wireless interference. The experience wasn’t perfect, but it seems that TCL will be providing these glasses to developers relatively soon to help them build new apps toward a better AR future.

Lenovo was also at the MWC, showing off its ThinkReality A3 glasses. This wouldn’t necessarily be a significant development when you consider that Lenovo announced the ThinkReality A3 in 2021 (we even wrote a paper about it at the time). What makes the ThinkReality A3 so compelling, however, is that Qualcomm uses it as the default design for developers wanting to use its Snapdragon Spaces XR developer platform. And not only did Lenovo have these glasses out in full force, but so did Qualcomm, along with multiple developers building things for Snapdragon Spaces. These developers included XRAI, which featured a ChatGPT-powered real-time translation app, and Mixed.World,which used Snapdragon Spaces to help launch Lufthansa’s latest business class cabin with a multi-user interactive AR experience. Lenovo also had multiple ThinkReality A3 demos at its booth, including a commonly favorite PC experience with extended monitors. This experience is especially good when traveling and you need extra monitors but don’t want to pack two monitors in along with your laptop.

Vuzix and Goertek also had reference design headsets at the show; however, Vuzix wasn’t giving demos of its latest AR glasses, and Goertek’s design wasn’t a functioning model. Vuzix’ latest design was announced at CES and is the company’s attempt to build a headset that its partners can customize for their applications. Goertek’s new headset is a “production ready” AR viewer reference design leveraging Qualcomm’s latest AR chipset, the AR2 Gen 1. Since Goertek is one of the world’s largest AR and VR headset ODMs, it makes sense that this reference design will likely be picked up and customized by many OEMs. This reference design and any designs based on it will also be Snapdragon Spaces Ready. Goertek says that this design is a continuation of the XR2 reference design that it unveiled in June 2022, but with a 12.8% reduction in frame thickness and a 30% reduction in leg height.

Qualcomm also announced a series of mobile carrier partnerships. I went into more detail about this announcement for RCR Wireless, focusing on how much it moves the Snapdragon Spaces ecosystem forward and how much it reflects the buy-in for Qualcomm’s view of XR from some of the largest cellular operators in the world. Qualcomm also announced that one of the biggest ISVs in the enterprise AR space, CareAR (a Xerox company), has officially joined its Snapdragon Spaces Pathfinder program. This announcement helps Qualcomm improve the perception of the Snapdragon Spaces platform as being relevant for more than just games and consumer applications; indeed, it makes it clear that it is a much more neutral platform for all types of XR developers.

VR headsets were there, too, but in a different capacity

While AR was the show’s star at MWC 2023, there was still plenty of VR present across the floor, with HTC being foremost in carrying the flag for the VR industry. The HTC Vive booth engaged attendees with VR and MR (mixed reality) using the new Vive XR Elite headset that it launched at CES in January. In addition to the XR Elite headset, HTC demonstrated its latest Mars CamTrack solution, which allows users to easily produce extremely high-quality MR video content using the latest game-engine technology and commercial camera equipment. In addition to that, HTC showed off its latest version of the “Viveverse,” which features configurable worlds and spaces for enterprise and business applications.

ANSHEL SAG

HTC also demonstrated its second-generation Open RAN-compatible 5G private network-in-a-box, which it calls Reign Core S2; it has built this alongside partners including Supermicro and Lumen to enable a complete solution that’s highly portable and easy to configure quickly. HTC designed the Reign Core S2 to make it easier to connect XR devices to a 5G network seamlessly and over an area as large as 10,000 square meters or 100,000 square feet. At MWC, HTC used the Reign Core S2 to power Mars CamTrack while also demonstrating a multi-user VR productivity experience in Autodesk VRED 3D that I was able to use without any lag or loss of visual fidelity. HTC did a good job showing off its different 5G and XR solutions and how they might be applicable today for real enterprise use cases.

Another company with a big presence at the show was Lenovo, and not only because of the wide adoption of the ThinkReality A3 AR glasses mentioned above. Lenovo also showcased the VR and MR capabilities of its new VRX headset. The VRX features the latest XR2+ chipset from Qualcomm and offers a considerably smaller yet more secure VR and MR headset than most of what’s on the market today. Yes, this headset has some competition already, but Lenovo’s approach toward building a complete software ecosystem around its XR devices will work in its favor. I got to use a VR training application in the VRX to learn how to assemble a car, which reminded me of the many other step-by-step training procedures I’ve done in VR.

Pico also had a presence at MWC 2023, albeit a small booth in Hall 8, which is mainly for smaller startups and away from the busiest halls of the show. The company focused mostly on giving consumer demos of the Pico 4 headset, which also has an enterprise edition that was not shown at MWC. I previously had not had a chance to try out the Pico 4 because they aren’t available in the U.S.; the thing that struck me the most about it was how much of the interface seemed like a nearly direct rip-off of the Meta Quest platform. Speaking of Meta, the Quest 2 and Quest Pro were used in various booths across the show floor for demos as the VR headset platform of choice. Many booths used it to demonstrate how they are addressing the Metaverse, while others simply used it to show how their product or service works in VR.

ANSHEL SAG

Last but certainly not least was TCL, which was the first company I met with at MWC 2023. At the event, the company used its own compact VR headset for demos. While the demos were fairly limited because the headset was a prototype, I was still impressed by how well the hand tracking already worked. This is promising because I believe that in the future all VR and AR headsets will need to offer hand tracking, even if only to offer a common base level of UI that users can depend on when their controllers die—or if they simply prefer a gesture-based UI without controllers. It wasn’t clear when this headset might be coming to market, but it was still good to see TCL demonstrating VR and passthrough cameras with hand tracking working in sync. (No, not Nsync.)

5G XR research was also prominently displayed at the show from industry juggernauts like Qualcomm and MediaTek. Qualcomm demonstrated how a ‘boundless AR’ experience might work, demonstrating a device switching between connecting locally to a smartphone over Wi-Fi or to 5G for remote rendering based on network conditions. The company also showed how 5G could be used for enhanced perception taking advantage of the headset’s sensors to improve mmWave beam forming techniques to maximize performance and link stability. Qualcomm also developed a 5G API so that cloud applications can dynamically adapt to real world cellular conditions and how that can improve the user experience greatly. MediaTek also had a 5G research demo described as Agile XR, taking advantage of the 5G modem’s ability to communicate the network state to applications, similar to Qualcomm’s 5G API. This will hopefully help OEMs to embrace the us of 5G integrated into XR headsets, which we really have yet to see.

Beyond the headset

As mentioned earlier, ZTE did launch a 3-D tablet with its partner Leia called the nubia Pad 3D, which will carry the Lumepad 2 name in the U.S. This is a 16:10 ratio, 12.4-inch tablet with 2560 x 1600 resolution and a 120-hertz refresh rate. The device sports a Snapdragon 888 processor, which is honestly a little dated; it would be cool to see this new tablet ship with a Snapdragon 8 Gen 2 instead. Leia sent me this tablet shortly before I departed for Barcelona and MWC 2023, so I’ve had a lot of time to play with the device. It is far and away the best 3-D experience I’ve ever seen on any device. Additionally, Leia has gone to incredible lengths to pack this tablet with apps and content that help maximize its utility as a spatial computing device, including both front- and rear-facing dual cameras for 3-D photo and video capture.

I will give a full review of the nubia Pad 3D in a separate article, but for now I want to emphasize that 3-D displays and holographic displays are going to be absolutely crucial when the internet goes 3-D and truly becomes, “the metaverse.” This is because there will be many scenarios in which you don’t want to put on a headset to see something in 3-D, or you want to share a 3-D experience with a room full of people not wearing headsets. This is where I think companies like Leia, Lightfield Labs and Looking Glass Factory will be positioned exceptionally well: the metaverse—or the “spatial internet,” if you want to call it that—will require people to see things not just in headsets, and I think 3-D displays will be how that’s done. And these devices won’t always run in 3-D mode, but they should be able to switch to 3-D seamlessly when called upon, much like the Leia Lumepad 2.

Another interesting spatial computing technology I saw at MWC 2023 came from Nokia, which demonstrated using spatial audio for conference calls. Nokia has developed a way to capture, compress and reproduce spatial audio for conference calls so that when many people are on the same call, they can hear where people are speaking from. This makes calls sound much more natural, and much less like a series of individual voices fighting to be heard.

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Highlighting another promising avenue for development, Telefonica’s booth had a rudimentary 5G volumetric video setup, which utilized a bank of Intel’s now cancelled RealSense cameras. Telefonica framed this as a “holographic telepresence” demonstration, combining advanced camera technology with edge computing and fiber transmission. Telefonica worked with Evercoast, Intel and AWS to make the demonstration happen using commercial networks and equipment. It was great to see this technology out in public, but to be candid it didn’t look very high-quality; in fact, it looked a lot like a solution I had seen from a company called Volygon using a similar setup almost 3 years ago.

I hope that the demonstration got some people thinking about what’s possible with holographic telepresence, but I was not very impressed with the image quality compared to what I’ve seen recently from Volygon. Nonetheless, this technology continues to move forward, and I believe the demand for this kind of content will only increase as more users have 3-D-capable devices, whether a VR headset, AR headset or 3-D display.

Wrapping up

MWC 2023 was a great show that got many people excited about the future—which I believe is the purpose of these kinds of tradeshows. MWC 2023 did a much better job than last year of demonstrating how 5G and XR can coexist and benefit from one another, but there was still no clear killer app debuted, and I still don’t think we have a clear path to headsets with built-in 5G modems. That problem will probably still take years to solve, and these technologies will remain niche until the 5G edge becomes more GPU-accelerated than it is today.

That said, it was great to see some serious progress from many players like HTC Vive, Lenovo, Leia, Qualcomm and TCL, just to name a few. The next year will be very interesting for this whole industry, especially as it prepares for the inevitable launch of Apple’s XR headset, which has yet to get an official launch date.

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Anshel Sag is Moor Insights & Strategy’s in-house millennial with over 15 years of experience in the IT industry. Anshel has had extensive experience working with consumers and enterprises while interfacing with both B2B and B2C relationships, gaining empathy and understanding of what users really want. Some of his earliest experience goes back as far as his childhood when he started PC gaming at the ripe of old age of 5 while building his first PC at 11 and learning his first programming languages at 13.

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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.