Qualcomm's VR headset is a mighty box of tricks - shame you can't buy one

Everything but the kitchen sink
Testing Qualcomm's VR headset

I've been here before. I stood in this exact virtual habitat when I tested Leap Motion's hand-tracking tech last year. It's barren, built on tiles, and looks like the 3D world Homer finds behind the bookcase in that Simpsons Treehouse of Horror episode. I lift my hands up - yup, there they are, all digits accounted for and waggling in real time. I create a magic cube by pinching my fingers together and pulling my hands apart, then toss it gently across the room. The difference this time, however, is that I can walk over and pick it back up again. Freedom!

I'm wearing Qualcomm's prototype headset, an all-in-one VR showcase for its new Snapdragon 835 architecture. Not only does it integrate Leap's aforementioned hand-tracking tech, it also does inside-out room scale tracking (so no need for external sensors like Oculus Rift and HTC Vive have), has a 170-degree field of view, and, although it wasn't running on the model I tried, the kit will also have eye tracking for foveated rendering, where image quality outside your field of view is reduced to soften the workload.

So yeah, it does a lot. And although not all of these individual technologies are perfect on their own yet, bringing them all together makes for one mighty impressive demonstration - the type you wish you could show your nan the first time she tries VR.

Taking Qualcomm's kitchen-sink VR headset for a spin

"Wires are an evolutionary dead end," Qualcomm's vice president of product management, Tim Leland, tells me. He's convinced a "mentality shift" is going to happen soon, where the difference in quality between mobile and "premium" VR will start to blur and having a cable attached to your head will start to seem primordial.

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However, Qualcomm's approach to VR is going to be like its approach to smartphones. This headset I'm trying is simply a reference design, and Leland says the company has no interest in going down the route of making consumer VR products. Instead it's shipping development kits to VR headset makers and launching an accelerator program that will give companies access to Qualcomm's supply chain partners.

As with phones, Qualcomm wants to be the one propelling the VR industry forward. Leland says there are around 20 active HMD designs in the works off the back of this new program already, and we can expect to see products announced in the second half of 2017.

Taking Qualcomm's kitchen-sink VR headset for a spin

My problem with mobile VR, usually, is that the quality of the image is poor, but I was whisked into a second demo on Qualcomm's headset, a Power Rangers movie tie-in experience, and left me very impressed by the fidelity on the screen (a split 2560 x 1440 AMOLED display helps there). All on a tetherless headset weighing little more than a Samsung Gear VR.

VR is "not nearly where it needs to be," in Leland's opinion, but that's ok. He sees it as a 30-year cycle. To him, we're still Michael Douglas on the brick cell phone in Wall Street. No one should have expected the Holodeck by now, but give it time.

The biggest bone of contention for Leland right now is the number of companies building products because they can, not because they're necessarily a good idea. He uses VR backpacks as a prime example of this, and I have to agree. "I think we need to shame the industry," he says. "We need to start going after all these problems".


People need to focus more on making products people actually want to buy, argues Leland. He also thinks the industry needs to pull together and better lay out the definitions of virtual, augmented and mixed realities. Like many other people in this industry Leland sees AR as the end point, but he thinks that too many people's notions of augmented reality have been severely limited by products like Google Glass. Its potential is much greater, and Qualcomm fully expect its HMD accelerator program to start steering in the direction of AR as the technology becomes ready.

"It's called 'program' for a reason," he says, explaining the lack of VR in the name. "It's all AR. That's where this is all going"

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