Qualcomm Claims Leadership in Augmented Reality, Sees Huge Potential on Its View Screen

6/21/11Follow @bvbigelow

I’ve never been particularly fond of the term “killer app,” which has thankfully receded from the lexicon of tech writers—no doubt from heavy overuse.

But during Qualcomm’s Uplinq conference for mobile app developers earlier this month, I was struck by the potential “killerness” of the wireless giant’s initiative in mobile augmented reality, or AR. What initially seemed like an amusing kind of virtual curiosity last year (when Qualcomm and Mattel demonstrated an AR version of the game “Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em Robots”) struck me this year as a far more pragmatic and relevant technology—with a broad range of potential applications. What Augmented Reality really represents is a potential revolution in the mobile user interface—by simply aiming a camera-equipped mobile device towards an object (or anything, really) and seeing a layer of relevant data, images, or apps superimposed over the real world.

The combination of AR software and hardware that Qualcomm (NASDAQ: QCOM) has developed makes it possible to overlay 3-D virtual images and video content on top of the real world, as viewed through the camera of a smartphone or tablet computer. While there are some AR mapping technologies that use GPS and internal compass inputs to provide virtual labels (visible in the field of view) for shops along a street, say, Qualcomm has focused its R&D efforts on a different approach, called vision-based AR.

Jay Wright

“It’s a different set of technologies that require computer vision technologies that are capable of recognizing things in the field of view,” says Jay Wright, Qualcomm’s senior director for AR business development. While Qualcomm’s technology lies mostly in its proprietary software, Wright says the company is also integrating its AR software closely with its mobile chipsets.

Wright says the AR field traces its roots back to the aircraft maintenance business, as part of an effort to make the complexity of aircraft maintenance and repairs easier for mechanics. The idea was to devise a see-through display that would be head-mounted, so mechanics could superimpose the manufacturer’s schematic for a wiring harness while peering inside a panel at the real thing. “It makes a lot of sense,” Wright says, “because wires need to go in the right place inside of airplanes.”

Qualcomm is now working to make its AR technology the preferred software worldwide, in the tradition of Facebook, Google, and Microsoft.  “What we are doing commercially is we are taking this software technology for vision-based augmented reality and we are making it broadly available [for free] to all Android developers, and we also just announced that we’ll be making it available to iOS developers as well,” Wright says.

Because vision-based AR apps are very computationally intensive, Wright says, they take a lot of processing power. So Qualcomm has optimized its AR software to perform especially well on the company’s higher-end Snapdragon chipsets. By making its software widely available to app developers (Wright says more than 7,000 so far), Qualcomm is both driving demand … Next Page »

Bruce V. Bigelow is the editor of Xconomy San Diego. You can e-mail him at bbigelow@xconomy.com or call (619) 669-8788 Follow @bvbigelow

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