Since VR's rise to prominence, the line separating mobile VR headsets from more expensive, more powerful rivals has been clear for everyone to see. But over the last year, that line has become faded, as standalone headset concepts have emerged and offered the platform a middle ground.
As with any new technology, it takes time for the big players to implement and manufacture their own designs. That's where Qualcomm comes into play. As companies look to develop their own spin on the latest standalone headset technology, the chipset giant is on hand to help out with a reference device – one of the first to debut new technology. In this case, the company is out at MWC 2018 showing off its latest reference headset, the Snapdragon 845.
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Just like last year's iteration, this is a wire-free experience that should help yield similar consumer headsets towards the end of the 2018. But just how does this edition of Qualcomm's reference designs stack up against what's out there at the moment? And what tricks does the company include this time around? We went under the headset in order to find out.
Qualcomm Snapdragon 845 VR headset: Design and comfort
Since this is a design that Qualcomm has cooked up internally, we won't get too excited about the intricacies here. This is really more about broad strokes, since any partnering company naturally has the freedom to skew off on its own course when designing.
However, what's immediately noticeable when you pick up the Snapdragon 845 is its weight – this thing is seriously light. It's not the biggest factor when assessing headsets, since weight is usually a thing that you quickly forget about once immersed in the action, but it does make spinning around and moving in VR that much more pleasant. It's also a help considering this headset does stick out slightly more than the average mobile VR rig.
And how the headset tracks your movement is the big feature of Qualcomm's overall design here. By implementing something called foveated rendering – an eye tracking feature that allows the focus of an eye to be detected – users will be able to take advantage of room-scale tracking that pairs six-degrees-of-freedom (6DoF) with simultaneous localisation and mapping (SLAM). It all sounds complicated on paper, but this is essentially how a standalone device is able to pick up on your location in a room, track it, and also pair this with where your eyes are in relation to what's being shown through the headset.
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As the image up top shows, the front of the headset features four cameras – two facing inwards, two facing outwards – in order to make this all happen.
In terms of controlling, the reference device has plenty of options. Two touch pads sit on either side of the headset – the right acts as your up-down-left-right in menus, the left is your zoom – while a small, one-hand controller (similar to the likes we've seen with Samsung Gear VR and Google Daydream) can also be used.
Qualcomm Snapdragon 845 VR headset: Putting it to the test
As is typical with reference design demonstrations, what Qualcomm is showing off right now isn't the most in-depth and mind-blowing bit of VR we've ever encountered. However, it was still enough to get a taste of just why this technology is set to truly be a shaker for the VR industry.
During our demo, we received a mini-tour of a rocket ship from a robot guide before being allowed to walk around and blast away at robot hornets. It was all very straightforward, but it did show off a couple of things about the device. Perhaps most importantly, that the inside-out tracking can work seamlessly with the environment around you.
There was no lag here in the three times we went through the demo, and also no ghosting when moving, whether that was to sharply turn around 180 degrees to blast away enemies or simply look out into space at a meteor being destroyed. Speaking of blasting enemies, the controller tracking was also responsive and simple – the headset device didn't lose the beam of the gun at any point, and control over the aim itself was akin to what you'd find with high-end VR.
The display, too, while still being somewhat of a step down from what we've seen from the PC-powered systems, is very impressive for what's still a mobile VR system. That's thanks to the two beefy 2400 x 2400 pixel screens running at 120 frames per second.
Qualcomm Snapdragon 845 VR headset: Early thoughts
While the Snapdragon 845 won't be the headset making its way onto user's heads later this year, the technology being displayed by Qualcomm is certainly something to get excited about. The gulf between this and current mobile VR systems is vast, and we imagine that will only continue to grow once the technology is in the hands of OEMs later this year, who can leverage their own in-house developments and help add their own touches to the 845 design.
However, just who that will be remains to be seen. Last year, HTC used the Qualcomm Snapdragon 835 reference design to help produce the Vive Focus in China, and there's every chance that it will do the same to produce an updated standalone model for the US/European market later this year.
Any other potential players getting involved in the standalone VR market will likely do so towards the end of the year, as we mentioned up top, but stay tuned for whispers later this summer – that's when we should get a clearer idea about who's preparing headsets and perhaps what differences they hold to Qualcomm's reference design.
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