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In the Launch of the Galaxy S23 On Wednesday, Samsung also announced out of the blue Partnership with Qualcomm and Google to new XR technology, an umbrella term for the intersection of AR, VR and Mixed Reality or MR.
In a year that will see a new one PlayStation VR headseta new HTC Vive VR Headseta new Meta VR Headset and probably a very first Apple VR headsethow will this Samsung product (or products) end up changing the game… and when might it arrive?
Samsung’s onstage announcement was incredibly vague, with Google’s Hiroshi Lockheimer, Head of Android, and Qualcomm CEO Cristiano Amon promising new hardware and software that will bring new experiences. But Samsung and Google’s history in VR (and AR), as well as Qualcomm’s strong presence in the space, may point to some answers. So did the last major partnership between Google and Samsung two years ago, on smart watches.
In 2021, Google’s partnership with Samsung began with a rethink of its smartwatch lineup, which also resulted in a pixel clock last fall. It’s likely that this new partnership between Samsung, Google and Qualcomm could play out in a similar way in AR and VR. If this happens, however, both Google and Samsung will be long overdue returns to the VR/AR spaces, which they have both retreated from for several years.
For this reason, the entry of Samsung and Google makes sense and is even urgently needed.
VR and AR need to work with phones again
VR glasses used work with phones, half a decade ago. Back in the days of Samsung Gear VR and google’s daydream view, you would put a phone in cheap glasses that use the device as a VR screen. This was fun novelty at the time and greatly expanded access, but it also had its limitations. Oddly enough, in 2023, VR headsets will barely work with phones.
It’s annoying because most of us spend our lives on our phones. VR, on the other hand, tends to stand alone. the Meta Quest 2 has been slowly hooking into phones through its pairing app, but doesn’t have nearly enough cross-device intelligence.
Qualcomm has already tried to solve this idea alone. About an early wave of AR glasses and certain Android phones, the company was develop tools to bridge apps and experiences and connect glasses directly to phones.
It’s much easier with official Android support. Google would enable that, and this Samsung-Qualcomm-Google partnership seems key to exploring how that would work with new VR headsets or AR glasses, or both.
At the moment VR is the future. Then AR
Nobody has perfect AR glasses yet, although the hardware parts are slowly coming together. Meanwhile, standalone VR headsets that use built-in cameras to show “passthrough” real-world video with overlaid virtual reality experiences are the fastest solution for AR. It’s also called “mixed reality,” and it’s what the MetaQuest Pro does in some apps. Apple’s upcoming mixed reality headset should do the trick work the same way. HTC’s Vive XR Elite coming this February? same thing.
I’d expect Samsung and Google to start developing a similarly lightweight VR headset with mixed reality capabilities first, using similar Qualcomm chips as the other hardware (or a next-gen chipset). Then AR glasses.
Qualcomm has already promised a new generation of low-power wireless AR glasses that will work with next-gen phones over the next three years, using a new one AR2 Gen 1 chipset announced last fall. Samsung’s Google partnership could also include exploring how to build phones and glasses that could work together for years to come.
Google is already dipping its toes in supporting AR glasses research and before that has a decade of experience with AR and VR. Samsung has all of its experience with the Gear VR and working with Oculus. Between the two, along with Qualcomm, it seems like there’s a lot of team wisdom.
A new operating system (think smartwatches)
Evolving Android into a new software experience for VR and AR is the biggest challenge and opportunity, and it would make a lot of sense for Samsung to lean on Google here. VR headsets of the past five years have tried to dabble in dedicated app stores, much like Meta Quest. But the whole spirit of the idea of ”the metaverse” is cross-device compatibility. And theoretically easy app support.
Samsung changed its strategy on its watches by adopting Google’s WearOS in an announced partnership two years agowith the aim to bring Samsung watches closer to Google’s Android OS. But Samsung also helped Google consider high-end health and hardware features to boost its aging smartwatch lineup. What us to…
A path to Pixel hardware?
One could imagine that Google will try to make its own AR/VR hardware again at some point. The team behind Google’s Daydream, led by Clay Bavor, did it shifted focus at Google Labs, working on more experimental projects like Project Starline (and these research-based assistive AR glasses).
It seems very likely that similar to pre-Pixel Watch smartwatches, the route to Google’s future XR hardware will be via Samsung. The Galaxy Watch 4 was the first experiment in Wear OS 3, and then Google entered the water over a year later with a Fitbit-infused Pixel Watch.
AR and VR headsets are significantly more complicated. Maybe Google will wait a little longer with a Pixel device. Perhaps, as both Google’s Lockheimer and Qualcomm’s Amon seemed to suggest, there will be a variety of forms and choices, including some that aren’t headsets at all. Remember: Google’s idea of ”ambient computing“includes immersive technology from every angle, including stuff not worn.
What year will this be out?
That is the difficult question here. It’s likely that Google will elaborate more on this partnership at its I/O developer conference, which usually takes place in May, just before Apple is likely to talk about its VR headset at WWDC. We haven’t seen any hint of actual hardware yet. It’s not impossible that a standalone VR headset in the spirit of the Meta Quest could launch sooner or later, but it would be a huge surprise if something did arrive in 2023.
When Samsung and Google announced the Wear OS 3 partnership in 2021, it came with a teaser photo of the watch itself and the promise of hardware by the end of the year. No such statements have been made or shown this time, and 2024 appears to be the earliest possible launch date.
And 2023 certainly looks like one turbulent year for the larger XR world. While plenty of VR hardware is hitting the market, it’s unclear who can actually afford it. Perhaps it’s best for Samsung and Google to wait out this crowded year and figure out how to make improved, potentially more affordable hardware in 2024.