Bee 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 has its fingers in many pies at events like this, from its new Snapdragon 8 Gen 2 chip that powers the Samsung Galaxy S23 Ultra to a wealth of panels and discussions all around Wi-Fi 7 And 6G.
An area of particular interest to me was Qualcomm’s determination to move forward in what it calls “XR” — that’s “extended reality,” an umbrella term for wearable technology that includes virtual, augmented, and mixed reality. Aside from the fact that the initialism should really be ‘ER’ (although I can understand why Qualcomm would want to avoid that), there were some very impressive XR products at the expo with Qualcomm Snapdragon chips inside.
Those chips include the newly announced Snapdragon AR2 Gen 1, a purpose-built platform designed to power lighter and more efficient AR wearables, such as smart glasses. Qualcomm was eager to promote its presence in Lenovo’s slick new ThinkReality A3 goggles, which I got to test at the event and proved to be very impressive.
The future of augmented reality
There’s a clear case to be made that it’s AR, not VR, that will truly become the next frontier of tech products in the near future. VR has its applications – the best VR headsets can provide hours of fun, but it’s still a niche technology with too many drawbacks. VR gaming is an expensive hobby and typically requires too much physical space and effort for most people to get invested.
AR, on the other hand, has many more practical applications. You’ll probably never see anyone riding a bus wearing a full VR headset, but wearable technology like smart glasses is slowly – very slowly – starting to trickle into real life. Google Glass may have had a rocky start, but it did spark global interest in AR glasses, and I was excited to see such a wide range of AR products at MWC.
Qualcomm clearly was too; when I was part of the company’s XR Operator Panel hosted by VP Hugo Swart, there was genuine enthusiasm for the future of AR wearables. Deutsche Telekom VP Sven von Aschwege stated his belief that smart glasses and similar wearable hardware will eventually completely replace phones, something Swart (and Telefonica’s Daniel Ortega) agreed with.
Clearly, this group of tech industry executives is sure to spark excitement about XR at MWC since they have such a vested interest in the hardware; Qualcomm was proud to add that two new AR glasses on Snapdragon had been unveiled during the show, one from Goertek and the other from Xiaomi. Our American editor-in-chief Lance had something to say about the current range of AR products, and I have to say 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 so smart glasses
I’m going to put aside the big concerns about pricing, usability, and user accessibility questions. These issues can – and most likely will – be resolved over time as hardware is refined and becomes cheaper to manufacture. Virtually any new technology begins to cost life far too much and is not viable for the average user; after all, in the year 2000, the idea that anyone could have a touchscreen computer in their pocket seemed bizarre to most.
But there’s another problem that Qualcomm and its partners have to solve, and it’s one that may simply not have a solution. See, that Snapdragon AR2 chip was designed specifically with distributed processing in mind; that is, it is intended to connect to a smartphone with its own CPU in order to relieve some of its processes and make them function better.
During the XR Operator Panel, we got some sales stats thrown at us. About 15 million VR/AR products were sold in 2022, and that number will grow to an expected 20-25 million by 2023 – a huge increase that certainly points to a consumer appetite for wearables. However, if we compare this to telephone sales, 2022 saw 1.5 billion units sold. That means AR/VR sales are literally one percent of phone sales; these numbers would certainly indicate that smart glasses won’t catch up with phones any time soon.
The distributed processing problem can be circumvented quite easily with a dedicated development of chips such as the Snapdragon AR2 and XR2; sooner or later we will have chips that can power high-end AR products without the need for a connected phone to support them. But it doesn’t solve the problem need for telephones.
We love our phones
Let’s face it: we’re all glued to our phones all the time. According to our reader statistics, 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 the best phones on the market, they are indispensable tools in modern times.
Replacing a product that has become so ingrained in our society is going to take some work, and to put it simply, smart glasses aren’t going to do it, chief. Tellingly, some of the best AR products I tested at the event, including the consumer-facing ones Lenovo glasses T1, which I also saw last year at IFA 2022 in Berlin – 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 capabilities in the AR overlay, or the 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 universally known, so it makes sense to combine it with wearables. Some AR products (like Lenovo’s ThinkReality A3 mentioned earlier) use remote cameras and hand tracking software, which works Okaybut simply cannot offer the same degree of tactility and feedback as a physical controller.
The perfect combination of phones and AR
Here’s why AR glasses won’t overtake phones: because they work best of Phones. They’re an accessory that can make your phone better, not the next stage in the evolution of wearable technology. Saying they’re going to replace smartphones is like saying keyboards or printers are going to replace computers — which, come to think of it, is really what the typewriter was.
Aside from these issues, glasses will never be as practical as a phone. I personally don’t wear glasses for my vision, but I do have a nice pair of sunglasses, and I try to remember to keep them in their cases when I’m not using them or I’ll damage them – and I’ve spent much less than a good one AR glasses would cost me now. I can slip my Google Pixel 5 easy in and out of my pocket; the idea of having to put glasses on my face to check my notifications sounds absurd.
However, Qualcomm isn’t afraid of the naysayers like me. Hugo Swart pointed out to MWC that there was resistance to the idea of mobile internet when it was first developed – people saying ‘what, am I going to check my emails when I’m outside?’ – and well, we all know how that went.
But I have to be honest: I don’t think smart glasses are the way of the future, and that, frankly, has more to do with the strengths of smartphones than the weaknesses of wearables. Phones themselves continue to evolve and innovate, changing form factors to bring us great products like the Oppo Find N2 Flip. And, after all, the cultural staying power of phones is considerable: think sci-fi media. Is everyone wearing AR glasses? The expanse? No, they all have nice little glass phones. I’m dropping my case.