On MWC 2023 in Barcelona, Qualcomm was in its element. As one of the largest manufacturers of phone and tablet processors in the world, the San Diego-based company is sticking its fingers in many cakes at events such as the new Snapdragon 8 Gen 2 chip powering Samsung Galaxy S23 Ultra to the wealth of panels and discussions around WiFi 7 AND 6G.
An area of particular interest to me was Qualcomm’s determination to move forward in what it calls “XR” – or “augmented reality”, a generic term for wearable virtual, augmented and mixed reality technology. Aside from the fact that the initialism really should be “ER” (although I understand why Qualcomm would want to avoid that), there were some very impressive XR products at the show with Qualcomm Snapdragon chips.
These chips included the newly announced Snapdragon AR2 Gen 1, a purpose-built platform designed to power lighter and more powerful AR wearables like smart glasses. Qualcomm wanted to promote its presence in the elegant new Lenovo ThinkReality A3 glasses, which I was lucky enough to test at the event and they turned out to be really impressive.
The future of augmented reality
There is a strong case that AR, not VR, will truly be the next frontier of tech products in the near future. VR has its applications – e.g best VR goggles can provide hours of fun – but it’s still a niche technology with too many downsides. VR gaming is an expensive hobby and usually requires too much physical space and effort for most people to invest in.
On the other hand, AR has much more practical applications. You’ll probably never see someone riding a bus with a full VR headset on, but wearable technologies like smart glasses are slowly – very slowly – starting to seep into real life. Google Glass may have had a rough start, but it sparked global interest in AR glasses, and I was excited to see such a wide range of AR products at MWC.
Qualcomm apparently too; as I sat in the company’s XR operator panel, hosted by VP Hugo Swart, there was genuine enthusiasm about the future of AR wearables. Deutsche Telekom Vice President Sven von Aschwege expressed his belief that smart glasses and similar wearables will eventually completely replace phones, a view Swart (and Telefonica’s Daniel Ortega) agreed.
Now, of course, this group of tech executives is sure to stir up XR excitement at MWC with such a vested interest in hardware; Qualcomm proudly added that two new Snapdragon-powered AR glasses were unveiled during the show, one from Goertek and the other from Xiaomi. Our American Editor-in-Chief Lance he had a few things to say about the current plethora of AR products and I have to say that I agree with him. But there’s a bigger problem with Qualcomm’s glorious vision of a utopian future where we all have smart specs on our faces.
Not very smart glasses
I’m going to put aside my main concerns about pricing, practicality, and accessibility for users. These issues can – and most likely will – be resolved over time as hardware is refined and made cheaper to produce. Virtually any new technology starts to cost too much money and is not profitable for the average user; after all, in 2000, the idea that everyone could have a touchscreen computer in their pocket seemed bizarre to most.
But there is another problem that Qualcomm and its partners will have to deal with, and it is a problem that may simply not have a solution. You see, this Snapdragon AR2 chip is specifically designed with distributed computing in mind; that is, it is supposed to connect to a smartphone with its own processor to offload some processes and function better.
During the XR Operator Panel, we received some sales statistics. Around 15 million VR/AR products were sold in 2022, and that figure will increase to an expected 20-25 million in 2023 – a massive increase that certainly points to consumer hunger for wearable devices. However, if we compare it with telephone sales, in 2022 it was 1.5 billion units sold. This means AR/VR sales are literally one percent of phone sales; these numbers would certainly indicate that smart glasses will not overtake phones any time soon.
The distributed computing problem can be circumvented quite easily with dedicated chip development, such as the Snapdragon AR2 and XR2; sooner or later we will have chips capable of powering high-end AR products without having to plug in a phone to operate them. But that doesn’t solve it need for phones.
We love our phones
Let’s face it: we’re all glued to our phones all the time. According to our reader data, it is statistically likely that you are reading this article on a smartphone or tablet. Whether you have a cheap old model or one of these best phones on the market are essential tools nowadays.
Replacing a product that is so deeply ingrained in our society is going to take some work, and to put it simply: smart glasses won’t do it, boss. It’s very telling that some of the best AR products I tested at the event – including those aimed at consumers Lenovo T1 Glasses, which I also saw at IFA 2022 in Berlin last year – work best when connected to a smartphone, which becomes a kind of controller in your hands. This is quite common; the phone can act as a motion controller with virtual pointing capability in an AR overlay, and its screen can be used as a large touchpad for user input.
This is great, and both options are intuitive ways to use augmented reality glasses. The feel of a smartphone in the hands is widely known, so pairing it with wearables makes sense. Some AR products (like the aforementioned Lenovo ThinkReality A3) use external cameras and hand tracking software that works All rightbut it just can’t provide the same degree of tactile sensitivity and feedback as a physical controller.
The perfect combination of phones and AR
This is why AR glasses won’t overtake phones: because they work best With telephones. They are an accessory that can enhance your phone, not the next evolution of portable technology. Saying that they will replace smartphones is like saying that keyboards or printers will replace computers – which, now that I think about it, is basically what a typewriter was.
Even without these issues, glasses will never be as practical as a telephone. Personally, I don’t wear glasses for my eyesight, but I do have a nice pair of sunglasses and try to remember to keep them in the case when not in use so as not to damage them – and I spent a lot less on them than a pair of good AR glasses would cost me Now. I can upload mine Google Pixel 5 easy to get in and out of the pocket; the idea of putting glasses on your face just to check notifications sounds ridiculous.
Qualcomm, however, is not afraid of opponents like me. Hugo Swart pointed out at MWC that the idea of a mobile internet met with resistance when it was being developed – people were like “what, should I check my email while I’m outside?” – and well, we all know how it went.
But I have to be honest: I don’t think smart glasses are the future, and frankly, it has more to do with the strengths of smartphones than the weaknesses of wearables. The phones themselves continue to evolve and innovate, changing forms to give us amazing products like Oppo Find N2 Flip. After all, the cultural power of phones is significant: think science fiction media. Is everyone wearing AR goggles? Space? No, they all have fancy little glass phones. I leave the matter.