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 costs about $799 while an Oculus Rift 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 and Samsung Gear VR? 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) in the world.
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.
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.
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.)
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!