AR developer kits are the new black. This trend accelerated with Apple’s ARkit in 2017, followed soon by Google’s ARCore. And let’s not forget Snap’s Lens Studio, Facebook’s Spark AR, and focused third-party plarforms like Zappar, Wikitude, 8th Wall and Niantic Lightship.
Now another player enters the AR platform race: Qualcomm. Today, the company announces Snapdragon Spaces, a developer kit to enable the creation of consumer and enterprise AR experiences. It focuses primarily on headworn AR with a hardware-agnostic approach.
Among other things, Snapdragon Spaces brings Qualcomm further up the stack. As a standard in compute processing for XR devices, the installed base of its Snapdragon chips tees up Spaces for all the tech and business advantages of vertical integration (more on that in a bit).
So what does the platform offer? In a pre-briefing, Qualcomm VP and GM of XR Hugo Swart characterized Snapdragon Spaces as having three pillars. These are innovation in platform capabilities, openness for cross-device support, and reducing friction for developers.
Starting with the innovation piece, it’s represented by AR capabilities like object recognition, positional tracking, occlusion, plane detection, scene understanding, and spatial mapping. Some of this comes from Qualcomm’s acquisition of Wikitude and more M&A could follow.
Moving on to the platform’s openness, this is in Qualcomm’s DNA in providing chips for 50+ AR headsets. Snapdragon Spaces will support the OpenXR platform, and will work with industry-standard tools such as Unity and Unreal engine to import 3D assets and existing work.
That same openness applies to distribution as well, says Swart. In other words, developers can push out apps and experiences built with Snapdragon Spaces to any app stores they already work with. All of this is meant to standardize and de-fragment AR for a wide addressable market.
“Spaces provides a consistent perception feature set and app portability to developers with a standards-based platform based on OpenXR and SDK’s for Unity and Unreal Engine,” said Swart. “This gives end-users the flexibility to move from one [set of] Spaces-compatible AR glasses to another without losing app support or app features.”
Lastly, Spaces’ goal is to be developer-first and reduce friction. For example, one platform hallmark is “AR as a Feature.” AR glasses functionality can be added to 2D mobile apps, meaning that both smartphones and AR glasses are accommodated to cast the widest net.
“For example […], an Android application that enables the download and manipulation of 3D objects via the smartphone touchscreen,” said Swart. “If that application is upgraded to support AR glasses with Snapdragon Spaces, the end-user can move the 3D object from the smartphone screen to the real world, manipulating it with their hands or through the device screen.”
Back to Qualcomm’s quest for vertical integration, Spaces is a logical move in several ways. For one, controlling the software and the chipset (and forays into hardware with its reference designs), Qualcomm can now achieve tighter integration of software and silicon.
This will manifest in more operationally sound and efficient systems but also work towards long-term improvements to its core chipsets. In other words, it now has a first-hand feedback loop for optimizing chip design in how it impacts end-user software UX further up the stack.
From a business and go-to-market standpoint, all of the above provides a powerful selling point to enterprises and developers. Furthermore, Snapdragon’s installed base provides inroads to distribute Snapdragon Spaces via Qualcomm’s existing channels including OEMs and telcos.
In fact, these types of integrations are a key success factor for AR platforms. For example, ARkit and ARCore have vertical integration with the world’s leading mobile operating systems. Snap and Facebook’s AR platforms are bolted to socially-fueled AR lens distribution.
Perhaps a better example is Microsoft. Its Mesh platform for virtual collaboration is positioned uniquely, given integration with existing assets. For Microsoft, that list includes its installed base of enterprise software (Teams, Office, Azure, etc.) and hardware (HoloLens 2).
Qualcomm is tapping into these same benefits of vertical integration and expanding its presence further up the AR stack. Given those benefits, we expect it to continue doing more of the same. Expect more platform development in the coming months through both buying and building.
Meanwhile, Snapdragon Spaces is available to select developers and opens up widely in Spring 2022.