Android's next destination: Untethered VR headsets with Snapdragon 835

Qualcomm will ship a development kit that includes a VR headset with a Snapdragon 835 chip

What is Android's next destination? Thanks to Qualcomm, it's going to be used in untethered VR headsets.

Google's plan for VR headsets currently revolves around Daydream, in which smartphones are slotted into headsets like DayDream View. But VR's future appears to be in untethered head-mounted displays, which are self-contained computers. These headsets don't need to be hooked up to smartphones or computers to roam VR worlds.

Google hasn't talked about a plan for self-contained VR headsets yet, but a Qualcomm effort may accelerate efforts to release Android-based head-mounted displays.

Qualcomm is pushing for the development of a new generation of such VR headset with its Snapdragon 835 chipset as part of a new development kit.

The chipmaker will ship VR headsets as part of a program for partners and content developers around the second quarter. The VR headsets and development kit will become widely available thereafter.

These headsets will be based on Android OS but will have their own VR software overlay. The underlying OS is Android, but the user experience with the OS won't be anything like you see in a smartphone.

The headsets could also provide a sneak peek into Google's plans to create a version of Android for untethered headsets. Beyond Daydream, Google also offers Tango, its AR platform, but it doesn't need a VR headset.

Qualcomm plans to show some VR headsets at the upcoming Game Developers Conference in San Francisco. This isn't the first wearable with Snapdragon 835: Osterhout Design Group at CES showed a mixed-reality see-through smartglasses that can be used for AR and VR.

GDC is turning out to be a battleground for VR headsets -- tethered and untethered -- based on Android and Windows. At the show, Microsoft will start shipping its VR developer kit, which will include headsets that are tethered to Windows 10 PCs.

Microsoft's VR strategy currently revolves around Intel chips. Qualcomm already has Intel in a bind with a plan to puts its speedy Snapdragon 835 chip in Windows 10 PCs, but it is now also targeting the chip at VR headsets. Intel is aggressively chasing the VR market to remain relevant in PCs.

The goal for Qualcomm is to bring some consistency to VR headset development, said Hiren Bhinde, senior manager at the company.

The chipmaker has set key performance indicators for headset makers to create high-quality headsets, Bhinde said.

Mobile head-mounted displays have to designed within power and performance constraints to balance the user experience and battery life, Bhinde said.

Qualcomm will work with headset makers on the schematics and help them make decisions related to technologies like batteries and throttling. The headsets also have to be designed so the experience isn't nauseating, Bhinde said.

There are many possibilities with Snapdragon 835, a superfast chip that will also go into mobile devices, tablets, and PCs. It has 4K capabilities, so it can handle high-resolution graphics and displays. It also has technologies like integrated Wi-Fi and WiGig for high-speed communication with PCs.

But VR headsets open up a new form of computing and have different requirements. Tracking technology is important to prevent users from bumping into walls when roaming VR worlds. Microsoft is requiring VR users to establish a "safety zone" within which people can move.

Because there's no keyboard or mouse, voice commands will gain more importance in VR tasks. Microsoft is relying on Cortana for this, and Qualcomm will need to advise headset developers to load up microphone arrays and voice recognition technology.

Qualcomm's VR headset development kit will also come with software tools to write programs.

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