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Qualcomm announces an ambitious, risky all-in-one VR headset

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An interesting design, but is it over-promising?

Chip maker Qualcomm has revealed a reference platform for a standalone virtual reality headset, which it’s calling the Snapdragon VR820. The VR820 was created in partnership with Chinese electronics company Goertek, built on Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 820 mobile processor and software development kit. Qualcomm says the headset can be quickly adapted into a product by other companies, despite promising features that remain cutting-edge for virtual reality — like a self-contained form factor and "inside out" tracking that can measure head position without external cameras or feedback systems. The VR820 is supposed to be available by the end of 2016, with commercial devices based on it coming out "shortly thereafter." While Qualcomm won’t set the price of these devices, the company told The Verge that the range could be similar to "higher-performance tablets."

As Qualcomm points out, we’ve already seen a Snapdragon 820 VR headset before: the Pico Neo, co-developed with Goertek. The roughly $500 Neo, announced this spring, is an Android-powered device whose processing power is packed into a handheld controller. The VR820, though, is totally self-contained, and it incorporates a variety of novel features. These include 1440 x 1440 resolution for each eye, significantly higher than the Oculus Rift or HTC Vive’s 1080 x 1200 resolution — although the refresh rate, which helps determine how good the experience looks and feels, is 70Hz compared with 90Hz for the Rift and Vive.

Qualcomm says the VR820 also has two cameras for eye tracking, a feature that was pioneered in the specialty Fove headset and is supposedly coming to the high-end StarVR device, but hasn’t made inroads into consumer VR. Perhaps most notably, the headset is supposed to have "inside-out" tracking capabilities, using cameras mounted on the device to track head motion instead of relying on external sensor systems. Inside-out VR tracking is theoretically achievable, but it’s rarely been spotted in a workable state, especially on a headset that’s supposed to be so close to release.

The company contrasts the VR820’s development with the state of things like Project Alloy, an all-in-one "merged reality" prototype that Intel announced last month. "I think our device is a much closer-to-commercialization product," Qualcomm product management senior director Hugo Swart told us, when asked about Alloy. "From our understanding of what some of our competitors are doing, ours seems to be a much more commercially focused effort."

It’s hard to say exactly what a commercial version of the VR820 would look like, though, and where it would be sold. Anyone who based a product on the reference platform would need to devise their own controller, and VR experiences so far tend to appear on either a desktop PC environment, Samsung’s Gear VR, or the Google Cardboard platform on iOS and Android. In order to take advantage of the advanced features Qualcomm is promising, a manufacturer would need to make sure that software developers will actually build for them. It’s possible that the platform could thrive in the burgeoning Chinese VR market, but while "we're seeing a lot of demand in China, that does not mean that devices will not be available elsewhere," says Swart.

Qualcomm is making some very big promises with the VR820, sometimes at a significant risk. If a system like inside-out tracking doesn’t work, it could make the entire experience unpleasant or outright nauseating, and an all-in-one headset has to be powerful enough to run experiences well without being too heavy or bulky. And while a headset that costs hundreds of dollars could still be significantly cheaper than a high-end desktop setup, it’s more expensive than buying a mobile VR case to use with a smartphone. These are all issues that Qualcomm and any manufacturers it inspires will have to deal with — and hopefully, we’ll be able to test its claims soon.