Qualcomm’s Plan To Win The VR Platform Wars

Earlier this year, after Qualcomm announced its Snapdragon 835 VR reference platform, we said that the mobile chipmaker was a dark horse in the XR race. With some new developments since then--including the big hardware partner wins at Google I/O-- Qualcomm is galloping hard and gaining ground.

Let’s Talk About Platforms

If you consider the whole of the XR market from a bird’s eye view, there are fundamentally two platforms: Windows and Android.

This is a bit of an oversimplification, but: On the Android side, things are fairly straightforward. There’s Google Cardboard (which, by the way, the company seems to be done with), Daydream VR, and Tango (AR and MR). There’s also Gear VR, and of course the new Snapdragon 835 VR designs.

OS: Android

Layers: Cardboard, Daydream, Tango

Peripherals: Cardboard, Daydream View, Gear VR

Systems: Smartphones, standalone HMDs

When we’re talking about Windows-based XR, it’s more complex (and we’re still oversimplifying here):

OS: Windows 10

Layers: Oculus Home, SteamVR, Windows Mixed Reality

Peripherals: Oculus Rift, HTC Vive, OSVR, Windows Mixed Reality HMDs (Acer, HP, Lenovo, Dell, Asus, 3Glasses)

Systems: PCs, standalone HMDs (HoloLens, Intel Project Alloy, Project Santa Cruz)

Fundamentally, Oculus, Vive, and OSVR run on applications that run on top of Windows 10, and they’re what you might call mega-peripherals for the PC. The Windows Mixed Reality paradigm is the same, with the Windows Mixed Reality shell running on top of Windows 10 and the HMDs tethered to the PC. Other than the HoloLens, the Windows-based standalone HMDs are all in the experimental phase.


(Yes, there’s also PSVR, which is an outlier here because it’s a peripheral for one specific console. That’s another conversation for another day.)

Looking at the above, there’s a clear split between Android- and Windows-based XR. One can argue that the former is for casual experiences (and in the future, light productivity) and the latter for more hardcore applications like gaming (and in the future, heavy productivity), and therefore never shall the twain meet. This is just like the current smartphone/PC paradigm.

Qualcomm To Dominate Android XR

Therefore, although Qualcomm is making major plays on the Android side of the equation, you could say that it’s not going to do anything on the Windows side.

It's certainly attacking the Android side, though. The first untethered Vive HMD? Based on Snapdragon 835. The platform is Daydream-compatible, too, and anything that runs on serious Android-based VR is Daydream for now, so--you can do the math on that. Tango runs on the platform (in a way). It’s also scoring wins elsewhere in the industry with the likes of the ODG smartglasses.

And of course, let us not forget who makes the SoCs that go into most of our smartphones, including those that can support Daydream via the View headset and those running Tango. (Hint: It’s Qualcomm).

At this point, then, Android XR is as much a Qualcomm joint as it a Google one.

Eyes On The Windows Prize

There is a distinct possibility, though, that Qualcomm has its eyes set on another prize: Windows-based XR.

Consider the following: Windows Mixed Reality is designed to be surprisingly lightweight in terms of what it demands from the system powering it. The HoloLens runs on an Intel Cherry Trail SoC. (It’s true that it offloads a lot of work to its dedicated HPU, and the Snapdragon platform has no such third chip.) Even the specifications for PC-connected mainstream HMDs are shockingly low (Ultrabook-class chips!), and we believe that, soon enough, the minimum spec will require just integrated graphics.

It’s a bit of an apples to oranges comparison here, but surely a powerful Snapdragon chip that is uncluttered with telephony can handle similar performance.

That’s not to say a Snapdragon-powered standalone HMD will deliver the kind of incredible experiences you get on the Rift and Vive; but it could certainly handle many of the tasks that Windows Mixed Reality HMDs purport to. With Tango’s AR capabilities fully enabled, you could reasonably get a poor man’s HoloLens, a middle-class man’s Windows Mixed Reality, and a rich man’s Daydream VR on one Snapdragon 835-powered device. (Er, that list got a little weird. But you get the idea.) All that it wouldn’t be able to handle is high-end gaming.

(At this point, one could argue that high-end gaming is the killer app for VR and also the entry point for most early adopters. We wouldn't dispute that assertion, but we do believe that things like productivity, navigation, and communication will become the killer apps for most users of XR at some point.)

Uh, Windows?

There’s just one glaring problem: Windows doesn’t run on ARM-based chips, and because Snapdragon is based on ARM, Windows doesn’t run on Snapdragon chips.

That, however, is changing. At Microsoft Build, we covered a session wherein the company discussed how both x86 applications and UWP apps can run on ARM. The details are in the article, but here’s the upshot: According to Microsoft, the x86 Win32 apps run unmodified on Windows 10, at near-native performance. For now, this will work on exactly one chip:--Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 835.

We’re speculating here, but we believe that Qualcomm’s hardware will become an official part of the Windows Mixed Reality ecosystem, just as it’s now at the hardware heart of Daydream and Tango.

The Dark Horse Rides

In sum: Qualcomm is already becoming dominant in Android-based XR with its presence in Daydream-, Tango-, and Daydream/Tango-compatible smartphones as well as the upcoming standalone Daydream VR HMDs. Thanks to Windows on ARM (official name pending) and the relatively low system requirements for Windows Mixed Reality HMDs, it’s also about to make a bold play for all but the high-end gaming segment of Windows-based XR, too.

What’s more, those efforts run the gamut from AR to MR to VR.

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  • bit_user
    Quote:
    Tango runs on the platform (in a way)

    No qualification needed. Both Tango smartphones use a Qualcomm SoC. Lenovo's Phab 2 Pro uses the Snapdragon 652, while Asus' Zenfone AR uses Snapdragon 821.

    Quote:
    At this point, then, Android XR is as much a Qualcomm joint as it a Google one.

    Not really. Google owns the APIs and most of the software stack. You can be pretty sure they've kept the barriers to entry, for other SoC vendors, as low as possible. If Qualcomm is the only hardware platform doing Tango and/or Daydream, it'll be bad news for Google.

    Quote:
    The HoloLens runs on an Intel Cherry Trail SoC. (It’s true that it offloads a lot of work to its dedicated HPU, and the Snapdragon platform has no such third chip.)

    That was a non-sequitur. Cherry Trail also has no such third chip (and I think you mean second chip?). Microsoft designed it. All Qualcomm needs to do is provide the PCIe lanes needed to talk to it. On that front, I don't know how their current SoCs fare.

    Quote:
    It’s a bit of an apples to oranges comparison here, but surely a powerful Snapdragon chip that is uncluttered with telephony can handle similar performance.
    Why wouldn't they keep the cell modem, in case people wanted to use cloud apps outside of wifi coverage? I don't believe the Oculus line about how much overhead it adds - just check your battery usage statistics, sometime. On my phone, cell standby is usually pretty far down the list.

    Quote:
    According to Microsoft, the x86 Win32 apps run unmodified on Windows 10
    I wish you guys would clarify whether you mean 32-bit only, or 32-bit + 64-bit. I would assume the latter, but some readers of that article took it literally to mean only 32-bit.

    Qualcomm seems to be a pretty far-sighted company. They were already talking about their Zeroth mobile deep learning platform, back when deep learning was barely a thing. It looks like they did a good job of predicting the onset of AR & VR, as well. I hope it will have been worth their while, but I'm already eager to see others join the fray.
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  • bit_user
    BTW, Google's Tango tablet (which is still supported, for just a little while longer) uses Nvidia's Tegra K1 + Movidius' Myriad 1. Intel also had a prototype Tango phone, that it killed almost certainly due to their exiting of the handset market.

    So, Tango is already shown to be quite hardware agnostic.
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