Google could enrich AR, VR experience on handsets with custom chips

Sharing chip designs could drive processor development

Google appears to be striving for richer augmented and virtual reality experiences on Android mobile devices with an effort to internally develop chip designs for hardware partners.

Google has shared homegrown designs with partners, hoping the chips would be implemented in Android smartphones in the coming years, according to The Information, citing sources.

Sharing the chip designs could drive processor development and lead to a better experience on Android smartphones. Google may also want to smooth out some of the inconsistency of features across handsets, which comes from hardware developers designing their own devices and chips. The fragmentation in the Android world stands in stark contrast to product integration from Apple, which develops its own chips and smartphones to provide a consistent user experience across its devices.

Google wants to co-develop processors and have a say in technologies like CPUs and cameras, according to The Information. Many breakthrough technologies like AR and VR could change the way mobile devices are used, and Google wants a headstart to ensure those experiences are smooth across all devices, analysts said.

"If you are approaching it from a holistic standpoint, then you can come up with hardware approaches that can facilitate the software," said Nathan Brookwood, principal analyst at Insight 64.

Samsung already has made virtual reality possible through its Exynos chips, which are used in the latest Galaxy smartphones. Qualcomm, Nvidia, MediaTek and others also have graphics processors that can handle high-end graphics for AR and VR experiences. Right now, though, the experiences vary due to different hardware features.

Google may base its homegrown chip designs on architecture it licenses from a company like ARM. Graphics chips drive AR and VR but could take years to design, so Google will require assistance from partners that specialize in GPUs. Google currently uses an Nvidia chip for its experimental Project Tango tablet, which focuses on 3D motion and depth sensing.

But any attempt by Google to dictate chip design could upset smartphone partners, who want to differentiate devices through unique features, said Roger Kay, principal analyst at Endpoint Technology Associates.

Google will need Samsung -- which is the largest Android device maker -- as a willing partner to drive changes to chip designs.

Google could use the internally designed chip as a showcase for its partners, much like it has done with the Chromebook Pixel laptop and other hardware. Google most likely won't make a business out of homegrown chip designs in an already competitive and low-margin chip market.

Chip providers can easily miss or be ahead of new Android features, as has happened in the past, and Google may be attempting to keep the hardware and software development in sync, said Jim McGregor, principal analyst at Tirias Research.

Perhaps the best example of hardware makers and Android being out of sync is the introduction of 64-bit to mobile devices. Phone makers released 64-bit devices ahead of Google's release of 64-bit Android.

It takes roughly two years to implement a concept or specification -- like sensors or cameras -- in a chip.

Google has massive resources to design chips or hardware, like it has done for servers and the Project Ara custom smartphone. The company's attempts to bring consistency across the Android ecosystem may ultimately pay off.

"It's a long way off though," analyst Kay said.

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