Qualcomm’s Latest HMD Reference Design Features Adreno Foveation, Snapdragon 845 SoC

Last February, Qualcomm launched its VR Accelerator Program, which provided guidelines for hardware manufacturers to fast-track the development of Snapdragon-powered VR HMDs. The accelerator program also included a reference headset, which featured the company’s Snapdragon 835 SoC and offered 6DoF tracking and low power consumption. This year, Qualcomm is offering an improved headset design that includes the company’s new Snapdragon 845 SoC and eye tracking hardware.

It’s fair to say the first year of Qualcomm’s VR Accelerator Program was a success, with big name players such as HTC, Lenovo, and Oculus committing to building headsets based on Qualcomm’s design. Now the company wants to build on that foundation with a new reference device.

“We continue to deliver new advancements in technologies for our customers to utilize as they aim to capitalize on the growing standalone and smartphone VR industry,” said Hugo Swart, Head of Virtual and Augmented Reality Business Group, Qualcomm Technologies, Inc. “With the Snapdragon 845 Mobile VR Platform, we’re supporting the next wave of smartphone and standalone VR headsets for our customers and developers to create the immersive applications and experiences of the future.”

The Snapdragon 845 SoC features a Qualcomm Adreno 630 visual processing subsystem, which the company claimed delivers 30% faster graphics performance while achieving a 30% improvement in power efficiency over the previous version. The Adreno 630 can also deliver 2.5x higher display throughput, with support for display panels with resolutions up to 2400 x 2400 @ 120Hz per eye.

Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 845 SoC also offers additional performance gains that designers can enable with eye tracking hardware. In December, when the company introduced the new Snapdragon model, it also revealed Adreno Foveation, its take on foveated rendering. With the help of gaze tracking technology, Qualcomm can pinpoint where you’re looking and target that zone for high fidelity rendering while displaying the outer regions in lower quality, thus freeing up valuable computational resources. The company’s previous SoC supported foveated rendering through a plugin for Unity and Unreal Engine.

Qualcomm’s reference VR HMD also features a dedicated Qualcomm Hexagon Digital Signal Processor to enable 6DoF SLAM inside-out tracking.

Who Would Adopt The New Reference Design?

Qualcomm likes to stay ahead of the curve, but how far ahead can a company be and remain effective? The company releases a new mobile SoC on an annual basis, which works well for the smartphone companies that release new devices annually like clockwork. The VR HMD market is a little bit slower to the punch.

Last year, several companies announced that they would be developing VR headsets and AR Smartglasses that use Qualcomm’s processing units. ODG revealed its R8 and R9 smartglasses alongside the Snapdragon 835 SoC launch, but the company has yet to deliver the product to customers. On the VR side, HTC and Lenovo announced standalone Google Daydream headsets, but HTC backed down from that plan, and Lenovo hasn’t released the Mirage Solo headset yet. Oculus also announced that it's building a standalone VR HMD based on Qualcomm’s reference hardware.

“HTC has consistently delivered VR experiences with the highest quality possible catering to the industry’s most discerning users,” said Alvin Wang Graylin, President HTC Vive, China. “By collaborating with Qualcomm and leveraging our internal hardware and software innovations, HTC has been able to deliver an uncompromising VR experience with the Vive Focus premium standalone VR headset.”

HTC’s Vive Focus headset is now available in China, and we’re not aware of a plan to bring the headset to North America. We don’t expect HTC to change the Vive Focus specifications, which include the Snapdragon 835 SoC, but Lenovo and Oculus’ standalone HMDs are still in development. We wouldn’t be surprised to see those devices adopt Qualcomm’s latest hardware update.

Lenovo announced the specifications for the Mirage Solo headset at CES, which include the previous Snapdragon SoC, and it said the device would be available this spring. Lenovo is probably too far along in the development and manufacturing process of its headset to adopt Qualcomm's new design or the Snapdragon 845. However, we don’t know of any other standalone Daydream headsets in development, and Google said it has already seen Daydream run on a device powered by the Snapdragon 845. Hopefully we'll see what Google saw soon enough.

"Daydream works well on the Snapdragon 845. Using Qualcomm® Hexagon™ DSP, we're able to achieve significant power improvements and optimizations we aren't able to reach on other platforms,” said Amit Singh, Vice President, Business and Operations, Google VR and AR. “With Snapdragon 845, we believe we can achieve a high-quality VR experience with low latency, high frame rates and smooth head tracking performance for our users."

Oculus is a much more likely candidate to adopt the new reference design. The company is developing a standalone device called Santa Cruz, which offers 6DoF tracking for the HMD and the motion controllers. Oculus brought an early prototype of the Santa Cruz headset to Oculus Connect 4 in October 2017, and it featured a Snapdragon 835 SoC. However, the current processing unit likely falls short of Oculus’ ambitious goals for the headset. In many ways, the Santa Cruz headset should be a portable Rift headset, and we suspect the company will jump at the chance to get its hands on a more powerful processing unit to deliver the best experience possible.

“The Snapdragon Mobile VR Platform lends itself to the highest possible level of performance to meet the high computing demands of the standalone VR product category,” said Ash Jhaveri, Vice President of Business Development for Oculus and Facebook. “Qualcomm’s technology, coupled with Oculus’ expertise opens up lots of possibilities to bring people the best standalone VR.”

Qualcomm didn’t say when the Snapdragon 845 powered HMD would be available to hardware designers, but we get the impression that the big players already have access to the new HMD based on the comments from Google's VP.

 Kevin Carbotte is a contributing writer for Tom's Hardware who primarily covers VR and AR hardware. He has been writing for us for more than four years. 

  • grimfox
    I wonder if it's possible to create a core unit for processing and that maybe includes the displays as well that could slot into a device to improve the hardware refresh rate. It'd essentially be a smartphone but without a battery or wifi/cellular connectivity and with an extra camera for SLAM and controller tracking. I'm not sure how dependent the ergonomics, lenses, and headset overall are on the display/processor. This could improve the VR adoption rate as it could be seen as a better value. You could buy the whole shebang one year and then in a few years times you could upgrade the core module for a fraction of the total cost. Probably just a pipe dream or impossible.
  • bit_user
    MS' next-gen hololens seems like an obvious candidate for the Snapdragon 845.

    First, we know Win 10 now runs on ARM (Qualcomm SoC's, in particular). And since Intel got out of the phone market, I'm not sure they have a sufficiently low-power SoC. Finally, I wonder if the Adreno 630 might've surpassed the performance of what Intel even could offer, in that power envelope.