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New details on Qualcomm's 5G VR prototypes: Cloud rendering, eye tracking, high-res displays

The first Snapdragon 5G VR headsets and AR goggles are coming soon, according to Qualcomm

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Qualcomm's 5G VR and AR reference designs: 5G headsets could arrive later this year.

Qualcomm

Standalone VR headsets like last year's Oculus Quest are impressive, but the next generation of hardware that looks to push far past that. Blazing-fast 5G networks are what new smartphones are using to show off crazy download speeds, and the potential on future VR and AR headsets is even greater. Qualcomm has some new details on its 5G VR reference designs, showing off a VR/AR future that's 5G-enabled, but it could be another year or more before seeing the impact in something you'd actually want to buy.

Qualcomm makes nearly all of the chips that power current standalone VR and AR headsets (like the Quest or Microsoft's HoloLens 2). Previous Qualcomm reference design VR prototypes have predicted where things would go next, and it's likely that the company's new 5G VR headset will build on those upcoming features: eye tracking, 5G and a blending of AR into VR using a variety of external cameras are some of its tricks.

I tried an early version of this headset last year, testing an app made by telepresence software company Spatial. The finalized hardware uses Qualcomm's extremely fast XR2 chip, an VR/AR-optimized version of the Snapdragon 865 that's in this year's newest flagship Android phones (like the Samsung Galaxy S20).

Cloud rendering of graphics could mean that future VR goggles and smartglasses shrink down and need less powerful phones or PCs nearby in order to connect. Standalone VR and AR headsets with 5G are coming, and Qualcomm's reference design lays out specs and expectations for where other manufacturers could go by the end of this year or in 2021. This next wave of VR/AR headsets are expected to start arriving by midyear from some manufacturers, but some of these could be less expensive "XR viewers" that plug into phones, instead of stand-alone headsets. Devices like HTC's Project Proton could be a hint of headsets that bridge the gap between phone-connected and stand-alone.

Specs: Lots of cameras, higher-res displays

The headset reference design, seen below, looks a lot like other stand-alone VR goggles. Qualcomm plans to split focus into two directions: VR headsets that have passthrough cameras that mix reality into VR (like HTC's upcoming Cosmos XR, or the expensive Varjo XR-1), and AR headsets with see-through visors, like the HoloLens 2 or Magic Leap. 

Goertek is the manufacturer spinning off variations on the reference design for Qualcomm, using full motion 6DoF (six degrees of freedom) hand controllers made by NDI. These headsets will all have built-in eye tracking by Tobii, a feature expected to be on many VR/AR headsets going forward, which also occasionally shows up in gaming laptops

Qualcomm's reference design headsets have 2Kx2K pixel resolution per eye, but that's apparently due to current display resolution availability. Qualcomm's XR2 chip can handle up to 3Kx3K per eye, according to Qualcomm XR chief Hugo Swart.

The reference design headsets works over 5G via both mmWave and sub-6 GHz networks, and will be able to render graphics in the cloud or connect wirelessly over 60GHz with PCs.

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How much will they cost, though?

Despite the push for 5G, the technology will actually be optional on many of the upcoming VR/AR headsets using Qualcomm's new chip. It's likely many headsets will skip 5G to save money, or opt for lighter, cheaper headsets that can plug into phones for 5G, like the upcoming $499 NReal Light glasses.

It's also not clear what future 5G VR/AR headsets could cost, but Qualcomm's labeling of the XR2 chip as "premium" could hint at costs significantly higher than Facebook's $400 Oculus Quest.

Qualcomm was initially going to demonstrate this 5G hardware at Mobile World Congress, the tech conference that was cancelled due to COVID-19 concerns. "I'm still confident on having XR2 products come out this year, but we'll have to continuously monitor and see if there's any further impact on it," Qualcomm's Swart commented in relation to the coronavirus.