Qualcomm Developing Self-Contained VR Headset

The VR820 reference platform will be powered by Qualcomm's Snapdragon 820 chips and is being created with Goertek.

virtual reality

Qualcomm officials are introducing a reference platform for virtual reality headsets that they say will free users from having to use a smartphone or exterior sensors or to be tethered to a PC.

At the IFA 2016 show in Berlin Sept. 1, the company unveiled the Snapdragon VR820, a head-mounted display (HMD) that will be developed with original design manufacturer (ODM) Goertek and will be powered by Qualcomm's Snapdragon 820 system-on-a-chip (SoC). The goal is to create a platform that OEMs can use to accelerate the development of virtual reality (VR) headsets that have all the necessary compute, graphics, and other technologies in the HMD itself, eliminating the need for it to be wired back to a PC or to depend on a smartphone.

The Snapdragon 820, introduced earlier this year, has all the technologies—from CPUs to GPUs to digital signal displays (DSPs)—to power such headsets, according to company officials. Qualcomm also has benefited from years of developing chips for smartphones and other mobile devices that drive performance and power efficiencies.

"The Snapdragon VR820 integrates key technologies and features for an exceptional VR experience and provides a springboard for OEMs and developers to usher in the next generation of truly portable and untethered devices that we think are necessary for mass consumer adoption of VR," Anthony Murray, senior vice president and general manager of Qualcomm's internet of things (IoT) business, said in a statement.

The markets for VR and augmented reality (AR) products are expected to grow rapidly in the coming years as the technologies expand beyond the early-adopter phase in such areas as gaming and into the broader consumer and business worlds and as the cost for the technologies continues to fall. In a report last month, IDC analysts said worldwide revenues for the VR and AR markets will hit $5.2 billion this year and rise to more than $162 billion in 2020, a growth rate of about 181 percent a year.

"The rise of new, less expensive hardware will put virtual and augmented reality technology within the grasp of a growing numbers of companies and individuals," Tom Mainelli, vice president of devices and AR/VR at IDC, said in a statement. "But, as always, what people can do with that hardware will depend upon the applications and services that power it. In the coming years, we expect developers to create a wide range of new experiences for these devices that will fundamentally change the way many of us do work."

Revenue for VR systems—including viewers, software and services—will outpace AR-related sales this year and next, thought AR revenues will push ahead after that on the technology's strength in such areas as healthcare and product design and management.

Qualcomm, which like other chip makers is looking to expand the reach of its technologies, is targeting VR as a growth market. The ARM-based Snapdragon 820 makes a good platform for the technology, not only because of its Kyro CPU and Adreno GPU, but also with its Spectra camera image signal processor (ISP) and Hexagon DSP, officials have said.

The VR820 headset itself—which will be available in the fourth quarter, with commercial products based on the platform expected soon after—will include such features as integrated eye tracking with two cameras, dual front-facing cameras for six degrees of freedom (6DOF) for following users as they move their heads up, down, forward, backward and from side to side, four microphones and a variety of sensors (such as gyro, accelerometer and magnetometer).

The reference platform will be built upon Qualcomm's VR Software Development Kit (SDK), which the company announced in March. The SDK is designed to give programmers the tools they need to more quickly build VR software with Snapdragon chips for smartphones and VR headsets. In addition, company officials have been talking about some of the capabilities of its next mobile chip, the Snapdragon 821, which not only will support the VR SDK but also be compatible with Google's Daydream VR platform.

At the Intel Developer Forum last month, CEO Brian Krzanich announced Project Alloy, an effort to create an entirely self-contained VR headset that uses such technologies as the company's RealSense. Krzanich said the headset will be an example of what he called "merged reality," the ability to bring physical objects into the virtual world, and vice versa.