XR: Or the graphics, audio and processing of a world connected and mobile

With the unveiling of Snapdragon XR2, Qualcomm looks to the convergence of virtual, augmented and mixed reality with 5G and artificial intelligence

Editor’s note: Qualcomm Technologies Inc., provided travel, lodging and other considerations for the Snapdragon Summit.  

HAWAII–The days of cardboard headsets with slots to hold a handset directly in front of your face have quickly fallen away as the technology behind extended reality (XR) has rapidly advanced in tandem with the development of not just gaming- and entertainment-type use cases but meaningful enterprise applications that come with a clear ROI.

XR is an umbrella term used by Qualcomm to describe augmented, virtual and mixed reality. And XR, coupled with powerful 5G connectivity and distributed AI, is the technological combination that eventually will see us lay down our handsets in favor of glasses. It’s not a matter of if, according to Hugo Swart, Qualcomm’s head of XR; it’s simply a matter of when.

“I am convinced that this is going to be the new smartphone,” Swart told RCR Wireless News in an interview during the Snapdragon Summit on Maui. “For those of us in the industry that saw the migration from feature phones to smartphones, I see so many similarities. It was not just one thing that made the smartphone possible. It was display, it was processing, it was connectivity, it was content and it was ecosystem. All these same vectors are the ones we’re going through right now in XR. There is not yet a single converged device that is like our smartphone today that works for everything. That will come.”

During a series of XR-focused presentations on day three of the annual event, a series of enterprise users took the stage to espouse the benefits of XR, which are largely focused on augmenting human intelligence. For example, field technicians receiving real-time remote assistance from highly-experienced, specialists; retailers creating virtual stores to study consumer behavioral patterns then using that to inform merchandising strategies; or remote collaboration that avoids costly and time-consuming travel.

As  Raffaella Camera, head of XR innovation and market strategy at Accenture, put it: “XR is one of the emerging technologies that each client of ours needs to adopt to be able to compete in the post-digital era. XR is a strategic ecosystem play.”

Camera, discussing the aforementioned virtualized merchandising example, said Kellogg’s worked with Accenture and Qualcomm to observe consumer trends in a virtual store. By doing this rather than a more physical type of focus group, they were able to reduce the time and cost of the research by 50% and increased total brand sales by 18%. Things like eye tracking would let the partners capture data associated with where a shopper trains their vision.

“There is a high degree of correlation between the results of traditional tests and VR merchandising,” Camera said. “Eye-tracking provided us with behavioral data to make a different merchandising conclusion.”

Back to this idea of XR as a way for specialists to share learned processes with a less-skilled worker–if you project that forward with the assumption that XR will become mainstream, what does that mean for the workforce? If people don’t necessarily need to have a specialized skill set, will these specialists eventually disappear?

“I cannot say just in general terms,” Swart said, “but I definitely see many companies deploying XR…Baby Boomers retiring, that knowledge not being available or not being developed in younger generations. So with things like remote assistance, let’s say you have a junior technician in the field, you still have a few of the trained professionals in the back office. You have a few of them in the office assisting others in the field. Then with more and more AI…that helps as well have a less trained workforce being able to execute a task.”

This whole concept of the decline of specialization is something Jerry Useem explored in his excellent piece, “At work, expertise is falling out of favor,” published in The Atlantic earlier this year. Useem focuses on the crew of Littoral Combat Ship USS Gabrielle Giffords. The U.S. Navy used the crew to explore a premise described in the article: “The LCS was the first class of Navy ship that, because of technological change and the high cost of personnel, turned away from specialists in favor of ‘hybrid sailors’ who have the ability to acquire skills rapidly It was designed to operate with a mere 40 souls on board–one-fifth the number aboard comparably sized ‘legacy’ ships…The small size of the crew means that each sailor must be like the ship itself: a jack of many trade and not, as 240 years of tradition have prescribed, a master of just one.”

You should read that article so I’m not going to spoil it but, suffice to say, swapping out specialists for generalists did not exactly go as planned. Now let’s contextualize this through the lens of XR.

“For a company that needs specialized skills and is not able to find those skills, [XR-based remote support is] certainly a good thing,” Swart said. “I can be more efficient, I can have lower costs to operate my business. There’s always an answer that is indisputable, which is the enterprise use cases. You saw today Accenture show ROI numbers. That is indisputable. It saves me a lot of money. That’s what capitalism is all about.”

You may have seen recent reports about a Russian dairy farm that’s kitting its cows with VR glasses, showing them verdant, pastoral landscapes rather than the less idyllic outskirts of Moscow. The goal is to make the cows happier, thereby increasing their agricultural productivity. As an aside, this is pretty much the premise of the film The Matrix.

Image courtesy of CNN/Twitter.

Is that, abstractly, a good thing?

“I do think virtual reality can help in meditation sessions,” Swart said, “and helping us calm down in a different world associated with other immersion vectors other than visuals. It’s a combination of the visuals and the audio that you put in and that’s one of the applications I see with big potential. In the specifics of humans versus other animals, I’m not sure of the actual benefits but I certainly see it with positive eyes, the idea of using virtual reality for relaxation and other medical purposes.”

To open up these new XR experiences, Qualcomm’s Snapdragon XR2 Platform, as compared to its predecessor, features 2-times the level of CPU and GPU performance, a four-fold increase in video bandwidth, a 6x increase in resolution and a huge increase in AI performance. Snapdragon XR2 can also support up to seven concurrent cameras which is important for eye, body and hand tracking among other things. Here’s a detailed overview of the specs. 

Image courtesy of Qualcomm Technologies, Inc.


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Biometric payments to rock the world by 2024

Sceptics will turn their noses-up at the research, but as we increasingly drive towards a cashless society the trends are heading in the right direction.

According to findings from Juniper Research, biometric authentication will account for $228 billion worth of transactions by the end of 2019, before shooting upwards to $2.5 trillion by 2024. The biggest barrier to adoption, the presence of hardware on devices, will also be satisfied with the technology being embedded on 90% of smartphones by the same date.

“Biometrics has traditionally been used for in-person contactless payments,” said Juniper Analyst James Moar. “However, with an increase in the need for smooth authentication on all mCommerce channels, we anticipate over 60% of biometrically-verified payments will be made remotely by 2024.”

As it stands, biometric payments are a niche though in some markets, where mobile money is much more a standard, there is progress being made. There will of course be resistance to the introduction of new technologies, but eventually as more digital natives gain influence in society the concept of normal will be twisted and shifted.

Evidence for this is already present on devices today. According to Visa, 35% of smartphone users already use biometric authentication technologies as security for devices, primarily fingerprint or facial recognition, while some companies have also introduced vocal identifiers as passwords to access accounts. Banks and telcos have taken the lead here.

A decade ago it would have been deemed unthinkable for a user’s voice, fingerprint or face to be used as a password. Most would have assumed it was not secure enough, but then again contactless payments took criticism in the early years, and now look at how many people groan and moan when asked to input their PIN.

Interestingly enough, numerous studies have already indicated biometric authentication is more secure than traditional means. When you combine increased security alongside the convenience and speed of biometric authentication for payments, sceptics will start to pay attention.

There are niche trials focusing on biometric payments, Telia recently used biometrics in an ice-cream truck, though it does appear mainstream adoption of the technology might be here sooner rather than later.

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Huawei elects Canadian courtesy over US aggression

Huawei founder Ren Zhengfei has said the R&D business unit in Silicon Valley will be uprooted and relocated to Canada.

The closure of R&D functions in the US should come as little surprise considering the Entity List and President Trump’s xenophobic tendencies, though the Canadians will be pleasantly surprised at being selected.

“The research and development centre will move from the United States, and Canada will be the centre,” Ren said to Canadian newspaper The Globe and Mail.

“According to the US ban, we couldn’t communicate with, call, email or contact our own employees in the United States.”

Although the specifics have not been unveiled, Huawei has had to let go of some employees as a result of the ban on working with US companies, and this news will not be welcomed by the remaining. Huawei will continue its presence in the US, it is still in the courts fighting the US Government, though it does appear the bulk of operations will be shifted north to the politer side of the border.

What impact this will have on the relationship between the US and Canada remains to be seen. Although the Canadians would have gained some favour in during the arrest of Huawei CFO Meng Wanzhou, relations have been often strained between Trump and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

Last October saw the end of tension between the two nations ended as the duo came to a trade agreement. Once again, Trump was throwing his weight around, but this time it worked, as Trudeau bowed to pressure easing barrier to entry for US firms into the Canadian diary market.

Canada is an interesting country for Huawei, as there is no official, long-term position for the firm in the communications infrastructure ecosystem. The Government is yet to make any concrete statements, though as there are existing relationships with some of the telcos, there is a lot on the line.

In February, Telus said its 5G deployment strategy would be delayed by a Huawei ban. The company uses Huawei radio and optical transmission equipment for its 3G and 4G networks and continues to believe the company does not present a national security risk to Telus or its customers. Bell has said it would not be convenient but not the end of the world, which Rogers primarily works with Ericsson.

For Huawei, this could be a very positive move. Opening an R&D lab in the country could bolster relationships in a new market as it is quite clear there will not be any material wins in the US.

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