BERLIN — The push for virtual reality is a big deal across the tech landscape, but it's especially important to chip makers. All those virtual worlds and intensive graphics are going to require sensors, processors and other components that chip design firms are more than happy to supply.
So it's no wonder that these same chip makers want to help prod VR development along. That's why you see Intel unveil a VR headset at its developer forum last month that it plans to make available to hardware makers next year. And it's also a good explanation for Qualcomm using the IFA trade show to announce a VR reference platform of its own.
Qualcomm's Snapdragon VR820 puts the company's Snapdragon 820 mobile processor into a cordless VR headset to help manufacturers who want to make their own all-in-own head-mounted displays for VR. Qualcomm expects to make the reference design available in the fourth quarter of this year, and Hugo Swart, a senior director of product management at Qualcomm, told me we could see devices based on the design by early 2017.
I got a chance to try on the headset at IFA, and it's a pretty impressive design, if only because it lets you walk around untethered by any cords. It also doesn't require you to slap a phone inside the headset like you would with a Cardboard-based headset. Instead, Swart says, this design looks to create a new market for consumer devices — one that's more sophisticated than smartphone-based headsets but doesn't require the kind of PC tie-in you see from products like the HTC Vive or Oculus Rift.
The key to Qualcomm's approach is support for six degrees of freedom, meaning that you can move freely in all directions. That's aided by dual front-facing cameras that can register how your position changes relative to virtual objects; two more cameras inside the headset track the movements of your eyes. So when I started walking toward a friendly-looking octopus that appeared in my view finder, the octopus got larger. I could also look under the octopus to see the suckers on each of his arms. And when I moved to either side, the octopus's eyes followed me. That sounds like fairly ordinary stuff, until you realize that all the sensors enabling that changing perspective are included on the headset itself.
A second demo showed off the audio capabilities of the Snapdragon VR820 design. Qualcomm promises stereo, binaural positional audio and 3D surround sound. In this particular demo, a not-as-friendly dragon would stalk around me, snarling and snorting before flying off, only to land with a thud next to me or behind me. Only by hearing the audio cues coming from the appropriate direction did I know which way to turn to spot the dragon sneaking up on me.
Besides the Snapdragon 820, the reference design includes Qualcomm's Adreno 530 graphics processor and promises stereoscopic 3D with foveated rendering, meaning the area you focus on gets the highest resolution. The headset I tried had 1,400 x 1,400 resolution for each eye and offers 360-degree 4K video playback processing with HVEC compression. Importantly, the headset also promises great latency — about 18 milliseconds from when I move my head to when the processor responds to my movements, Swart says. That helps reduces the chances you'll get nauseous when using a headset based on this design.
The Snapdragon VR820 wasn't the only reference design Qualcomm unveiled this week. The company also has a pair of designs targeting home entertainment: the QCA9379 combo chip supports dual-stream Wi-Fi and Bluetooth, while a 4K Ultra HD media box reference design is based around the Snapdragon 820.
In a demo highlighting that 4K media box, Qualcomm executives showed off a TV screen broadcasting four things at once — a 1080p video and a trio of graphics-intensive apps — to show how the fan-less little box could handle all those processing demands. Other demos showed off GPU-based rendering of shadows and skin tones on a human avatar — the kind of realistic graphics you'd hope to see in video games. And a tessellation demo illustrated how the set-top box could support more polygons, turning a fairly ordinary graphic of a fly in a 3D, photo-realistic image.
Qualcomm's hope is that both home entertainment reference designs will influence future set-top boxes, smart TVs and gaming consoles. We'll find out by year's end when products based on both reference designs should be out.