Qualcomm's new VR SDK is designed to help engineers and developers seamlessly integrate their brand spanking new Snapdragon 820 SoC, but is it enough power to keep up with desktop and console VR systems?

There has been much hoopla surrounding the recent announcements of both Microsoft’s Hololens which is now shipping to developers and the first orders of the Oculus Rift, which are shipping as well. Amidst all of this excitement, Qualcomm has announced it will be releasing its very own VR SDK, taking advantage of their impressive suite of hardware designed for the demands of virtual reality. It should come as no surprise that many of Qualcomm’s chips have found their way into these new and impressive headsets. 

One of these chips is the brand new Snapdragon 820 which is the at front and center of their mobile computing lineup. The 820 is clocked at 2.2GHz, features a 14nm FinFET SoC design, and a 64-bit architecture for twice the efficiency and twice the performance over the 810 that it replaces. It's also tightly integrated to work with two other chips, the Adreno 530 GPU and the Hexagon 680 DSP for what Qualcomm refers to as “heterogeneous computing”.

Is this enough power to make mobile VR comparable to desktop and console VR? Qualcomm's VR SDK will allow you to develop in 1080p and 4k video output. Here are the hardware specifications for some popular VR systems: Oculus Rift, Playstation VR, Microsoft Hololens SDK.


 The layout of the Qualcomm Snapdragon 820 SoC


As an integral second part of the SoC design, the Adreno 530 GPU helps deliver an immersive visual experience by way of 40% improvement in overall performance. VR is a visually intensive experience and the “virtual” part relies solely on the power and cohesiveness between the CPU and GPU to create animations. For this, the Adreno 530 features a 624MHz stock core speed, Direct X 11.1, and Direct 3D compatibility to support 4k video output. 


The third part of this powerful yet efficient trinity is the Hexagon 680 digital signal processor (DSP). This chip is designed to handle any processing needs that the Snapdragon 820 CPU deems it can do more efficiently. The Hexagon 680 features something called Hexagon Vector eXtensions or HVX. The HVX architecture has 4 parallel Scalar Threads with 500MHz per thread for 2GHz worth of total Scalar performance. There are also two HVX Contexts that can be controlled by any two Scalar Threads for a total of 1GHz vector performance. In other words, HVX is what allows the Hexagon 680 to quickly process image and video data for things like VR using a lot less power.



A schematic of how the Qualcomm Hexagon 680's HVX architecture works


All three of Qualcomm’s products combine to bring developers the most options possible when using the VR SDK and implementing the new Snapdragon 820. What is interesting is that other than Intel, there aren’t any chip producers that also offer SD kits for developing VR headsets. New technology is allowing some great engineering minds to create some fun and engaging devices. Powerful SDKs for mobile VR might just be the thing that brings gaming on mobile devices to finally be taken seriously by hardcore gamers. They might also lead to new uses for mobile VR that haven't been invented yet!