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Virtual reality tech has progressed significantly in the past few years, but is still hamstrung in one particular area. Allow me, for just one moment, to channel my inner Jimmy McMillan and state that the cost of VR tech is too damn high.

Let’s do the math together. An HTC Vive Virtual Reality is Finally Here: HTC Vive Review (& Giveaway) Virtual Reality is Finally Here: HTC Vive Review (& Giveaway) The HTC Vive for Steam VR redefines gaming, and more besides. It's the closest thing to a Holodeck I've ever seen. And it's absolutely incredible. Read More costs about $799 while an Oculus Rift Oculus Rift Review and Giveaway Oculus Rift Review and Giveaway Virtual Reality is not new, but it's finally affordable and within our grasp. After four year and two development prototypes, the final consumer edition of the Oculus Rift has arrived. Read More will set you back slightly less at $599. Then you need to get a sufficiently powerful computer with a dedicated graphics card to run it all with reasonable performance — this could cost you another $800 or more if you buy said computer off the shelf.

Then you need some software to run on it. At the time of writing, the current top-selling VR game on Steam is Redout, which costs $35. Add it all together and you’re looking at an initial cost of somewhere between $1500 and $2000 just to start playing one game.

But what about the so-called “cheap options,” namely Google Cardboard Meet Google's Next-Generation Virtual Reality Platform Meet Google's Next-Generation Virtual Reality Platform Read More and Samsung Gear VR Samsung Galaxy S6 Edge and Gear VR Review and Giveaway Samsung Galaxy S6 Edge and Gear VR Review and Giveaway Samsung sells more Android devices than any other manufacturer, and thanks to some aggressive marketing, the Galaxy brand is almost synonymous with Android. Read More ? Well, true. These headsets are far cheaper, but they’re still not cheap. They require the user to have a specific model of smartphone — almost always a mid-to-high-end one.

But soon — well, at some point in 2017 — prices are going to crash, and it’s all because of a company you may not know much about, at least in the realm of VR: Qualcomm.

The Smartphone Model

Qualcomm is one of the biggest manufacturers of smartphone SoCs (System on Chips Jargon Buster: The Guide to Understanding Mobile Processors Jargon Buster: The Guide to Understanding Mobile Processors In this guide, we'll cut through the jargon to explain what you need to know about smartphone processors. Read More ) in the world.

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Based in San Diego, with offices in virtually every continent, the company employs over 33,000 people and pulls in over $25 billion in annual revenue. You might be familiar with its ubiquitous Snapdragon line of processors, which can be found on devices from manufacturers as diverse as HTC, Motorola, Samsung, Sharp, and Sony.

One of the tactics Qualcomm has effectively used in its quest for mobile dominance is its Reference Design program. In short, these are fully-featured smartphones that contain Snapdragon silicon on the inside — the “gotcha” is that they’re not intended for consumers.

Qualcomm810

Rather, third-party smartphone manufacturers (called OEMs, or Original Equipment Manufacturers) use them as the basis for their own devices. The fundamentals of the phone are there, but manufacturers can make small tweaks, such as change the display or upgrade the camera, in order to differentiate the handset from other smartphones based on the same reference.

Reference Design devices are awesome because they allow manufacturers to save significant sums of money in research and development (R&D). This means that smartphone production is cheaper in the long run and thus results in lower prices for consumers.

I should note that Qualcomm isn’t the only chip manufacturer with a reference design program. MediaTek, Intel, and BroadComm have all pursued something similar before.

So, What’s This Got to Do With VR?

It shouldn’t come as a surprise that Qualcomm is using the lessons it learned from the smartphone business and applying them to the promising world of virtual reality. The VR820 is its effort in this space.

As the name suggests, it’s based on Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 820 chipset, which is found in a range of kick-ass smartphones, including but not limited to: the LG G5, the Samsung S7 and S7 Edge, the HP Elite X3, and the Xiaomi Mi5 Pro.

QualcommVR820

Unlike the Vive and the Rift, the VR820 is a standalone device, meaning you don’t need to be tethered to a computer for it to work. All of the magic happens on the device itself.

And as you’d expect, it ticks all the boxes you’d expect from a high-end VR device. It has integrated eye-tracking with two cameras, motion-to-photon latency under 18ms, dual front-facing cameras for six degrees of freedom and see-through applications, four microphones, and sensors for a gyroscope, an accelerometer, and a magnetometer.

But this counts for nothing if the display is grainy and dull. Thankfully, it isn’t. In fact, it’s better than those found on the Vive and Rift, with a 1440 x 1440 resolution for each eye. (Indeed, the Vive and Rift both have 1080 x 1200 displays.)

vr820front

It’s worth pointing out that the refresh rate, which is vital when it comes to creating an immersive virtual reality experience, is nowhere near as good as that on the aforementioned devices: 70Hz compared with 90Hz.

Like the aforementioned Reference Designs, this VR reference won’t be the final product seen by individual customers. Rather, it’ll be bought by other manufacturers and be used as the basis for their own upcoming VR devices — it will spawn an algal bloom of headsets, all different in their own ways yet still with the same origins.

How Much Will It Cost?

Let’s recap. Reference designs are essentially blueprints that allow third-party manufacturers to save costs on R&D. These savings get passed on to consumers further down the line. In 2013, Qualcomm said that over 40 OEMs had used its reference designs to build 170 different smartphones, mostly for the Chinese market, but also for consumers in India, Brazil, Taiwan, and Vietnam.

So, what kind of impact with Qualcomm’s reference designs have on the price of VR headsets?

This remains to be seen. The company has been tight-lipped about specifics, but speaking to The Verge, it said that it expects one of these headsets to cost the same as a “higher-performance tablet”. This is purposefully vague, but one can interpret this to mean between $300 and $500 given the current market.

What This Means for Us

The Qualcomm VR820 is exciting for two really huge reasons.

Firstly, it’s going to cause a proliferation of all-in-one VR headsets that don’t suck. With the exception of the refresh rate, which I admit is a huge downside, it has the same specifications of other high-end headsets. In some cases, it utterly bests those from HTC and Oculus.

Secondly, it’s going to make VR affordable. Small-time manufacturers are going to take Qualcomm’s reference design and will run with it. They will create models that are cheaper than those produced by the incumbents.

But I don’t think that it’s going to be a downhill battle for Qualcomm. Not by a long shot.

Smartphones are an easy sell. Almost everyone has one and many people replace them once a year, as they break or as more enticing models are released. But VR headsets are a niche device, and for many the value proposition isn’t immediately obvious. Qualcomm may struggle to stir the enthusiasm of its OEM partners.

Are you thinking of getting a VR headset, or are you still very much a skeptic? If so, will you be waiting for one of the VR820 derivatives, or are you going to get an Oculus or Vive? Let me know in the comments below! 

  1. Jonathan vlietstra
    September 18, 2016 at 2:33 pm

    I own a Vive and this new headset doesn't interest me in the slightest. If all the processing is in the headset, it's just a more expensive Google cardboard.
    The Vive is for people who want to be immersed in real games, so until that headset can run Doom 2016 on it, it's old tech.

  2. David
    September 18, 2016 at 2:41 am

    I am going to wait for the Oculus or Vive. The eyes are the windows to the world. Refresh rates above 60 fps is the way to go so that we do not get motion sickness. People that cannot afford $500 cell phones, don't purchase them. They will have sales and coupons for the Oculus or Vive or they will not be affordable. But they will sell.

  3. Pedro Picado
    September 17, 2016 at 5:00 pm

    This makes perfect sense. And since I'm more in the "poor spectrum" of society, I'm all in for waiting till the prices drop.

  4. Some Fool Online
    September 17, 2016 at 3:20 pm

    Going to get CMOAR when it comes out. Not even remotely interested in the Rift, Vive, or any other including this, given the price point and features offered by CMOAR's VR.

    • Jonathan vlietstra
      September 18, 2016 at 2:35 pm

      Then you just want to be able to look around at cool stuff in VR. While that's ok, it seems expensive for something that will get boring fast.
      Room scale is real VR, and you need a system that connects to a computer if you want to play games. So right now, the only real VR solution if you want to play a game in VR is the Vive.

  5. Tp
    September 17, 2016 at 2:49 pm

    Good write-up .. however your are forgetting the one most important thing that will make or break VR.
    The very same thing that broke it back in the 90's.
    3rd party software man .. this thing sounds great but without good software it's a paper weight.
    Will it support Google's new daydream?
    Apple products?

    I hope it does well I really do. I hope we get to a point where vr is accessible to everyone.

  6. Stuza
    September 17, 2016 at 5:24 am

    Screen door effect is still significant on an S7 which is much higher PPI than PC based systems. Until the SDE is negated, im not buying a PC based one.

    These systems proposed by Qualcom won't have the GFX/CPU power to kick around PC equivalent games so won't be buying these either.

  7. Mike
    September 17, 2016 at 3:49 am

    Very interesting, but your calculation of cost at the beginning is deeply flawed. The Rift and the Vive are aimed at gamers, and gamers already have gaming PC's. Adding the cost of the PC is wrong, like adding the cost of a car purchase to the calculation of going on a road trip.

    • Jaron
      September 17, 2016 at 2:25 pm

      Although, most of gamers aren't made out of money. I bought a gtx 760 right before specs were being released for the graphics card requirements. That broke the bank for me. Right now I would have to spend $1000 to use the vive and then I would have to find the room to use it. Everything is priced too high currently, that's why their sales numbers are so low.

    • bork
      September 21, 2016 at 2:09 pm

      They might be aimed at gamers now, but gamers have always been the group that are early adopters willing to dump big bucks into tech that the masses wouldn't even consider.
      Once the masses get a real taste of VR, look out.

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