Augmented and virtual reality systems typically require information about the surrounding environment and the wearer's movements to function effectively. This can include information on orientation, pitch, roll, position, velocity, and acceleration. When this outside information is combined with a power processing system and display, the result is an immersive set of inputs for the user.
VR systems may not be able to continue using phone SoCs.
Because such systems are in real time, however, (as opposed to being rendered once and then displayed like in a video game scene sequence) powerful GPUs and fast processors are a must. Currently, AR and VR developers have been using phone processors due to their speed and graphical capabilities. But since these processors have not been designed for AR and VR, the systems perform calculations that could, in theory, be offloaded to a dedicated AR/VR handler.
For many designers, the answer to this conundrum looks like a specialized system-on-chip (SoC).
Meet the Snapdragon XR1
As there are next to no AR/VR SoCs on the market, Qualcomm is planning to release the XR1 which has been specifically designed with AR / VR in mind. The XR1 is full of features that make it ideal for AR and VR:
- 4K UltraHD at 30fps
- Qualcomm Spectra ISP camera image noise reduction and depth mapping
- Integrated display processor for 3D overlays, hardware acceleration, and OpenGL/OpenCL
- Advanced image processing for visual inertial odometry and other AR functions
- 3D audio
- Three and six degrees of freedom for head and controller tracking
The First of Its Kind, (for Better or Worse)
The XR1 is one of the first SoCs dedicated to AR and VR. While much of modern hardware design is focusing on customization and programmability, the other side of that coin is hyper-specific application-focused hardware. The XR1 represents a sizable investment on Qualcomm's part in the future of AR/VR device design.
The XR1 heterogenous design. Image courtesy of Qualcomm
Despite this, Qualcomm has told designers that the chip should be avoided for more demanding systems. For such situations, Qualcomm recommends their flagship phone processor, the Snapdragon 845, due to its high processing capability whereas the XR1 is more suitable for 360 video viewing.
If this is the case, then why is Qualcomm releasing this SoC? While phone processors may be better than the XR1 when it comes to CPU power, AR and VR demands are only going to become more difficult to meet. Phone processors, themselves, are unlikely to become increasingly more powerful if transistors cannot be shrunk further—and so customized digital signal processing hardware may be the solution. Future versions of the XR1 could integrate more powerful CPUs all while still providing dedicated logic units for AR and VR systems.
Since Qualcomm has recommended designers to use the Snapdragon 845 in complex AR/VR systems, it could be argued that the XR1 may only find its way into simple VR systems with limited capabilities. If this is the case, then sales for the XR1 could be lower than Qualcomm had hoped.
From this juncture, Qualcomm could choose to quickly produce a more powerful chip or drop support for the XR1 family.
It seems likely, given the evolution of electronics interfaces, that AR and VR systems will become as common as the keyboard. So, to put it Britishly, it would be daft for SoC manufactures to not recognize this market. But for AR and VR systems to become mainstream, they need to become reliable, responsive, and cheap. Hopefully, the XR1 can help lay the foundation for all future AR / VR systems.
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