Qualcomm's all-in-one VR design aims for a sweet spot

Consumers who want higher performance without a PC may embrace the new midrange concept

Hard-core virtual reality enthusiasts can shell out for a high-end display and a gaming PC, while casual users buy cheaper headgear that relies on their smartphones. Qualcomm thinks people are ready for something in between.

At IFA in Berlin this week, Qualcomm Technologies is unveiling a reference design for head-mounted displays (HMDs) that use its Snapdragon mobile processor and are totally self-contained. They’ll deliver a better experience than phone-based systems and won’t have to plug into a PC or use beacons around the room to track movement, Qualcomm said.

The reference design, developed along with Goertek, will be available in the fourth quarter. Manufacturers should start shipping HMDs based on that unit or the underlying design soon after. Qualcomm did not estimate how much those products would cost.

VR is so new that it’s hard to know how serious most consumers will be about the technology or what kind of hardware they’ll want, CCS Insight analyst Geoff Blaber said.

“We’re going to see huge diversity in terms of the quality of user experience,” he said.

Qualcomm’s first VR reference design, called the Snapdragon VR820, will add to that diversity. So will the company’s Snapdragon 821, which Qualcomm gave more details on this week. Smartphone makers are expected to use the 821 in handsets that support Google’s Daydream mobile VR software. Those handsets would snap into headsets much like Samsung’s Gear VR.

How well VR820-based products perform will help determine whether the new class of systems can win the hearts of consumers, Blaber said.

The VR820 reference design, announced on Thursday, is an integrated system. It meets some of the performance criteria users look for in powerful, PC-connected HMDs, Qualcomm says.

The display in a VR820-based system will be able to deliver 360-degree, 4K video at 70 frames per second, with delay of less than 18 milliseconds between when a user moves and when the screen responds. That meets the standard for gameplay that feels natural and prevents motion sickness, said Hugo Swart, senior director of product management at Qualcomm.

The design offers six degrees of freedom for head movements, so it can respond to wearers moving their heads backward, forward, up and down, and rotating or swaying left and right, Qualcomm says.

That sets the VR820 above phone-based systems, which have only three degrees: roll, pitch and yaw. And it achieves this without external components like lighthouses or infrared beacons, used with current high-end headsets, that need to be placed around a room. Instead, the new reference design uses two front-facing cameras and a Qualcomm Hexagon DSP.

The DSP also helps to provide “look-through imaging,” which lets users see objects in the real world while they’re otherwise immersed in VR. This capability can make VR safer, effectively giving users even more freedom to walk around while wearing an all-in-one device.

Of course, that freedom comes with battery considerations, too. Qualcomm’s design specification calls for two hours of normal running time.

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Stephen Lawson

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