A big wave of phone-connected smart glasses could be on its way over the next year. Qualcomm’s newest reference design blueprint for AR glasses looks like a pretty clear snapshot of what to expect. The company’s vision for smart glasses has been underway for years and both 5G phone-connect and Windows-connected glasses may finally be on their way.
For now they’ll be tethered with a cable to your phone in order to work, but wireless versions are in the works, possibly for 2022. These AR Smart Viewer glasses will be able to place 3D AR objects in a room, much like Microsoft’s larger Hololens or Magic Leap. They will use hand tracking or a phone’s touchscreen for controls and they’ll have MicroOLED displays. They’re designed to work over 5G with certain Android phones, where service is available.
Qualcomm briefed reporters about the news via VR, through the(I did the briefing via an Oculus Quest 2).
With Apple reportedly working on its own AR and VR headsets, Facebook releasing its own pair or smart glasses later this year and Samsung possibly having something in the works too, there could be a fresh wave of AR glasses announcements in the next few years.
Qualcomm is a notable company to follow: Its chips are in most of the standalone AR and VR headsets currently on the market, including the Oculus Quest and Quest 2 and the Hololens 2. I had a chance to try out previous reference design hardware — basically, an early concept model that other companies can build off of — ahead of headsets like the Oculus Quest.
Last year, Qualcomm promised a new wave of phone-connected AR glasses. This year, the specific specs are a lot clearer.
Qualcomm’s AR glasses specs include two 0.71-inch 90Hz 1080p MicroOLED displays. MicroLED is also being featured in Vuzix’s next smart glasses and reports say Apple’s future headset will be MicroLED as well. Qualcomm’s glasses use a Snapdragon XR1 processor, which is less powerful than the XR2 chip inside the Oculus Quest 2, and it still needs a Windows PC, Snapdragon 888-chip phone, or a separate processing puck to do the rest of the AR computing. The reference design glasses have dual black and white cameras plus an RGB camera that can scan spatial dimensions in a room and allow hand tracking, much like the way Facebook’s Oculus Quest works for room and hand tracking.
The glasses have their own six-axis motion sensor and magnetometer along with proximity sensors, helping virtual objects stay pinned in place while moving around.
While the glasses will be able to show 3D objects floating in the air, a big use case Qualcomm sees is for extra virtual monitors. The glasses will work with an upcoming Qualcomm framework to show Android apps on multiple virtual monitors, and stream videos and games, including protected digital content.
Qualcomm doesn’t seem like it’s going to make this hardware work with iOS, however: The reference design is Android and Windows-compatible only.
The glasses need to be tethered with a USB-C cable in order to work, at least for the immediate future. The next phase is to make the glasses connect wirelessly with 6Ghz Wi-Fi (Wi-Fi 6E): Qualcomm’s head of XR, Hugo Swart, sees that happening more towards 2022. The end goal is to make the glasses work directly over 5G, but the battery life and processing power on these glasses isn’t there yet.
I tried something similar to this idea last year, testing Nreal’s glasses paired to a phone. The NReal Light glasses aren’t built to Qualcomm’s new specifications yet, but that company is working on a new pair of connected glasses, according to Qualcomm, that will add more AR features based on Qualcomm’s blueprint.
Lenovo’s ThinkReality A3 glasses, announced at this year’s virtual CES, are also an example of the type of tech to expect. The somewhat compact glasses use a cable to connect to Windows PCs, and promise to offer multiple floating monitor displays for multitasking.
Qualcomm’s reference design is similar to Lenovo’s glasses, with a nearly-normal pair of glasses that house cameras, displays, and a small battery and processor. Some so-called smart glasses like Snapchat Spectacles were just connected cameras on glasses. Others, like Bose Frames and Echo Frames, are display-free and just have audio. Previous glasses with displays, like Google Glass or the Vuzix Blade, usually just showed flat screens floating in air. Qualcomm’s glasses are a lot more advanced, however: While the stereo displays will also show floating monitors, it can layer these in 3D and show holographic 3D objects, too, approaching what Microsoft’s larger, expensive Hololens and Magic Leap’s goggles aimed for.
Qualcomm’s news could mean more products emerging soon. Samsung’s possible smart glasses design, which was leaked over the weekend, looks an awful lot like Qualcomm’s reference design. It’s likely that any Samsung glasses could involve Qualcomm’s hardware, too. The Galaxy S21 already uses a Snapdragon 888 processor (in the US and China, at least).
For now, at least, it looks like we’re getting a very clear picture as to what smart glasses in 2021 and even 2022 will look like: they’ll be peripheral tethered to your phone and PC.
It almost feels like the early days of VR, when headsets needed to be cabled to PCs in order to work before cutting the cord and working on their own. Smart glasses look to be evolving that way, too, over the coming years.