Qualcomm's new 5G phone chips can power your AR, VR glasses

A new wave of USB-C headsets are ready to work with Snapdragon 855 phones. It could mean cheaper smart glasses are on their way.

Scott Stein Editor at Large
I started with CNET reviewing laptops in 2009. Now I explore wearable tech, VR/AR, tablets, gaming and future/emerging trends in our changing world. Other obsessions include magic, immersive theater, puzzles, board games, cooking, improv and the New York Jets. My background includes an MFA in theater which I apply to thinking about immersive experiences of the future.
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  • Nearly 20 years writing about tech, and over a decade reviewing wearable tech, VR, and AR products and apps
Scott Stein
2 min read

nReal's mixed-reality glasses are one of the first devices to work with Qualcomm's 5G phones.

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Qualcomm's next wave of Snapdragon 855-powered 5G phones have a clever trick inside: They can power VR and AR headsets via USB-C. This could mean we're not only looking at a whole bunch of lighter-weight tethered headsets, but a lot more affordable ones, too.

At Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, Qualcomm announced a new initiative to connect 5G phones with a new wave of headsets and is planning a certification program and branding sticker to help kick off interest in little plug-in headsets. Could this be what the HTC Vive Cosmos is going to become? We don't know yet. But a new Acer VR headset called the Acer Viewer and the nReal Light, a compact pair of mixed-reality glasses, are the first two compatible products along with an unannounced headset from Pico.

Qualcomm also announced that the first compatible phones will be made by Xiaomi, HTC, OnePlus, Oppo, Asus and Vivo. Cellular operators supporting Qualcomm's initiative so far include Sprint, LG U+, TIM, KDDI, SK Telecom, Swisscom and KT.

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Qualcomm's planning on creating its own "XR Optimized" badge to indicate which phones and headsets will work together. The company also wants to keep referring to the world of AR and VR headsets as "XR." While that's an accepted term for what's also known as "mixed reality," it's totally confusing for anyone outside the industry.

The nReal mixed-reality glasses debuted at CES 2019 and looked more like regular glasses than rivals such as the Magic Leap One. The nReal glasses connected to a Snapdragon 845-powered box at CES, but Qualcomm claims that the 855 processor has enough computer vision and graphics power to handle a headset's needs, without any lag. That could mean future headsets will get smaller and may cost significantly less. The USB-C connected Rokia Aurora glasses could hint at what's to come.

Snapdragon 855 phones won't work with these new headsets immediately out of the box. They'll require USB-C to handle video out (DisplayPort), which not all phones do. They'll also need special software from Qualcomm, which will precertify phones to ensure compatibility.

Acer and nReal's headsets will be demoed in Barcelona at Mobile World Congress. We'll follow up with hands-on impressions from Spain.

(Originally published at 4 a.m. ET)