While everyone is looking to Apple’s VisionPro to take Augmented Reality mainstream, Qualcomm has been quietly developing the technology to take over a huge market opportunity for years.
As I explained in this article, building AR glasses is hard, very hard. The AR glasses we all want inherently have many competing demands, often centering around the battery and form factor. You want a larger field of view? It needs a bigger battery. You want better tracking? Bigger battery. Better graphics? Bigger battery. You want to wear it for hours? Bigger battery with longer battery life. Oh wait, it’s too heavy? That means smaller battery, smaller field of view, smaller processor. Balancing this equation has been the bane of many device manufacturers’ existence.
Additionally, very few manufacturers have the vertical integration capabilities required to produce a great user experience – you need tight integration of the cameras, silicon, memory, displays, form factor and UX.
iOS vs Android, the Sequel
Only a few companies have the tight integration mentioned above end-to-end, those being Google and Apple, but there are a few companies in the world that do have the capability to tackle a big segment of the stack, and this is where the opportunity lies.
But first, let me take you all the way back to 2007, when Google acquired Android. Back then, Android was a tiny startup few people had heard about, and the iPhone was only beginning to make waves. Fast forward to today, and Android runs on 71% of the world’s mobile devices. Android can be found on $30 phones found in Africa, all the way up to the Galaxy-class Samsung phones that compete with the highest-end iPhones.
While Apple dominates the high-end smartphone market, and the high-end laptop market for that matter (and earphones, and tablets, and watches), there is a very healthy market for the long-tail. And what powers the majority of the long-tail? Android. Android allowed the hardware OEMs to focus on their unique ability, building phones, while Android took care of everything else – basic apps like email, an app store, security, etc.
And so is the opportunity with AR glasses. While everyone expects Apple to build the AR glasses that will finally break into the mainstream market, there is an opportunity to be the Android of AR glasses.
Qualcomm’s Exciting Market Opportunity
Now, building a vertically integrated hardware platform is substantially more difficult than building an operating system such as Android. And this is where Qualcomm has a unique opportunity.
Qualcomm’s XR2 chip was behind the revolution of consumer VR, powering the Meta Quest lineup. Before the XR2 chip, head-mounted tracking involved a lot of not great solutions, but moving the computations into hardware contributed to making consumer VR viable.
Coming back to the competing demands I mentioned earlier – one solution to the battery problem is to make everything more efficient. To do that, you need better chips, and chips that are purpose-built and close to the hardware. This is where Qualcomm’s AR2 chip comes in.
Qualcomm’s AR2 chip is a multi-chip platform, capable of optimizing the computations for perception, AI and graphics in a single chip, while offloading other computations to a phone over a high bandwidth, low latency Wifi 7 connection. Essentially, this means that this architecture unifies a significant portion of the stack I mentioned above – a tight integration with the cameras, silicon, memory, displays, and form factor.
And just like Android, Qualcomm is working with OEMs to do what they’re uniquely good at – building hardware. And this is the final piece – Snapdragon Spaces. Just like Android, Snapdragon Spaces allows app developers to write once, run anywhere, on any Android phone.
Qualcomm could build the next Android for AR Glasses
The opportunity ahead for Qualcomm is for Spaces to become the Android for AR Glasses. By leveraging their unique position to optimize everything required for AR Glasses, and working with OEMs, everyone who wants to compete with Apple will look for a platform capable of supporting their vision.
For OEMs, the way to differentiate themselves from competitors will be on form factor. For example, if you’re looking for a field service use case, you’ll want a lighter, cheaper set of glasses, and you’ll likely settle for a less capable device. For heavy manufacturing, you’ll want safety glasses and precise hologram alignment, resulting in a heavier, but more capable device. This would be analogous to ruggedized devices today, but with AR glasses, the opportunity to differentiate for individual use cases will be much more compelling.
For app developers like Scope AR, this is exciting, because building a spatial app that can run WorkLink’s work instructions, with a uniform user interface, means that we can spend less time maintaining individual code bases, and more time innovating and building features customers want. Every customer has unique hardware requirements, and the more variety of AR glasses out there, the more the benefits of AR can reach front line workers.
It’s an exciting time for augmented reality all around, and we can’t wait to see this inflection point take off over the next few years!