Augmented reality, better known as AR, is the future – it started with the failed Google Glass back in 2014, but as technology has advanced, the headsets are making a comeback. Microsoft’s enterprise-focused HoloLens 2 currently leads the pack, but rumours suggest that Apple is rumoured to be working on an AR headset for release in the next few years unofficially dubbed Apple Glass.

It’s the next logical step for wearable tech, allowing you to stay focused on the real world while getting digital hints and tips as you go about your business. Augmented reality headsets aren’t quite at the level of Minority Report just yet, but Qualcomm’s new AR smart viewer reference design brings us one step closer, giving us a good idea of what expect from the AR viewer market in the next few years.

Up until now, most AR headsets have essentially functioned as AR viewers, leaving the processing to whatever device it’s connected to, be it a smartphone or computer. It’s a necessary first step, but it means the headsets are relatively limited in nature.

Qualcomm’s taken the first steps towards a tether-less future, tailoring its new AR headset reference design to its Snapdragon XR1 Platform. It’s not quite the cord-cutter we’ve been looking forward to – it’s still tethered to a smartphone or PC – but it can reduce the overall processing power required, thanks to the introduction of split-processing, essentially splitting tasks between the headset’s XR1 and the connected device to reduce consumption by up to 30%.

An untethered experience is on the cards, with Qualcomm next focusing on wireless communication between the headset and the connected device, but eventually, the company sees the headsets as completely standalone devices connected to the internet via super-fast 5G. It’s certainly a step in the right direction, although how long Qualcomm envisions the process will take is currently unclear.

“AR simple viewers showcased viewers as an accessory to a smartphone. Now, AR smart viewers allow us to move some processing to the glass, to expand the possibilities of use cases, applications and immersion - this reference design is the first step in our roadmap to help scale the AR industry” said Hugo Swart, vice president and general manager of XR at Qualcomm, in a press release.

Besides, having a connected device does have its perks. Qualcomm has detailed a 2D App Framework that’ll allow you to anchor apps from your smartphone into the real world, allowing you to, say, have a cookbook app anchored to your kitchen worktop alongside the YouTube app showing you how to cook a new recipe.

It goes a step further when connected to a PC, with the ability to render multiple virtual displays, allowing for a large multi-screen setup without the burden of the huge monitors taking up space in the home, allowing for minimal home office setups. With a micro-OLED binocular display sporting a 90Hz refresh rate, AR experiences are likely to be of decent quality and buttery-smooth too.

But how do you interact with the various apps, notifications and whatever else manufacturers build into the AR headsets of tomorrow? Qualcomm utilises a pair of monochrome cameras to enable not only head tracking with 6 degrees of freedom, or 6DoF, keeping AR elements anchored to the environment, but also hand tracking complete with gesture recognition.

There’s also mention of an 8Mp RGB camera with image stabilisation to enable a ‘See what I see’ use case, perfect for technicians, first responders and more.

The reference AR headset Qualcomm does, admittedly, look chunky and certainly not something you’d see at Paris Fashion Week, but that’s the joy of a reference design: Qualcomm isn’t actually going to launch the headset. Instead, it’ll provide the design to other manufacturers who can then tweak it as desired and begin production. It’s available to select Qualcomm partners now, with wider availability in the coming months.

The tethered nature of the AR headset design means it’s likely to be focused on enterprise users, as with most AR headsets available right now, but as we move closer towards an untethered AR headset experience, tech giants will shift focus from enterprise to consumer – and that’s when things will really start to get interesting.

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